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Masters Is Not a Longshot for Those Who Hit It Long

Golf: Woods is the favorite, of course, but Augusta also suits others who combine big tee shots with putting touch.

April 03, 2001|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AUGUSTA, Ga. — No one has won the Masters more than Jack Nicklaus, who slipped into that green jacket six times. So who is the guy to beat when they start playing Thursday afternoon at Augusta National?

No, not Nicklaus, although he has a fair idea who the favorite should be.

"The way I look at Augusta, I think it's always been a long hitter's golf course," he said. "There have been guys that haven't hit the ball extremely long but have won there--a Jackie Burke or a [Gene] Sarazen. [Gary] Player has done very well at Augusta without being a long hitter."

But . . . ?

"I mean, a player like Tiger Woods has a much greater advantage at Augusta than he does at any of the other majors. And the changes they made on the golf course, I don't think they really make [any difference].

"If he hits in the rough, all of a sudden I am back there hitting an iron out of that rough and he is hitting wedge out of that rough. He is going to stop a wedge [on the green] no matter what he does, so he has got an even greater advantage, I think."

Here's another Tiger advantage: victories in his last two tournaments.

Still, Woods isn't the only player who has length off the tee. Ernie Els was second last year to Vijay Singh, which is statement enough, but Els also knows how to putt, which is how he won the U.S. Open twice.

The list of other long hitters with putting touches includes Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Fred Couples and David Duval.

Duval is in that group purely on potential, because he certainly hasn't put up any numbers this year to show he's a formidable candidate. He pulled out of the Players Championship because of a wrist injury and except for the first tournament of the year, hasn't placed higher than 51st. He has played only once since the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in mid-February.

Last year, Singh played the last three rounds in 10 under, but he was nine under on the four par-five holes. His average driving distance was 273 yards, but more impressive was his reaching 80.6% of the greens in regulation. He needed only 124 putts in four days, an average of 1.722 each hole.

Singh had never really distinguished himself at Augusta before. In six previous appearances, he missed the cut twice and his best result was a tie for 17th in 1997. But he changed his attitude about Augusta, decided to make the best of it and outdueled Duval down the stretch.

Singh ranked 30th in driving distance on the PGA Tour last year, so a successful title defense this week isn't out of the question.

Meanwhile, expect the hilly, challenging Augusta National course to sort out the big hitters.

Premier among them is Woods, of course. And if Woods wins, the hype about his so-called Grand Slam will be off the charts. Woods won the last three major championship titles, all in 2000. In some circles, a Woods victory this week would be considered a Grand Slam, regardless of the calendar year.

"I suppose it is a new year," Nicklaus said. "But to win all four of them at the same time would be something pretty special."

For any long hitter.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The 65th Masters

Brief look at the Masters:

* When--Thursday-Sunday.

* Site--Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga.

* Length--6,985 yards.

* Par--36-36-72.

* Format--72 holes of stroke play, sudden-death playoff, if necessary.

* Purse--To be determined ($4.6 million in 2000).

* Field--94 players, including five amateurs.

* Defending champion--Vijay Singh.

* Farewell--This will be the final year that Byron Nelson hits a ceremonial tee shot to start the Masters.

* Noteworthy--Tiger Woods is trying to become the first player to hold all four major championship trophies.

* Quoteworthy--"It's like a straight flush vs. a royal flush."--Brad Faxon, on whether it should be considered a Grand Slam if Tiger Woods were to win this Masters.

* Television--Thursday-Friday, 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., USA Network. Saturday, 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m., CBS. Sunday, 1 p.m. to conclusion, CBS.

COMING THURSDAY: MASTERS PREVIEW SECTION

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