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Hootie Johnson isn't trying to stay the course at Augusta, he's trying to make it as tough as possible on today's players

April 06, 2006|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

AUGUSTA, Ga. — If people are upset because of the degree of difficulty associated with Augusta National Golf Club this week at the Masters, they probably can blame it on Phil Mickelson.

Eight years ago at the Masters, Chairman Hootie Johnson watched Mickelson turn the 455-yard 11th hole -- the first hole of Augusta's famed Amen Corner -- into a pitch and putt, using a driver and pitching wedge to get to the green. Johnson came away fuming.

"The green wasn't intended to play like that," Johnson said Wednesday morning. "I believe Ben Hogan was quoted as saying, 'If you ever see me on that green, you know I've missed my shot.' Well, if Hogan was hitting a ... pitching wedge, he wouldn't have been to the right of the green, he'd have been within three feet of the cup."

The passage of time is measured by different standards these days at Augusta National, which places that Mickelson moment about 520 yards ago.

So when the 70th edition of the Masters begins today, the players will face a much sterner and certainly longer test, a 7,445-yard expedition over and around some of golf's most hallowed ground.

And after undergoing its second face-lift since 1999, the playing field is more than five football fields longer than it was the day Mickelson hit a wedge to the 11th green. It was a shot that started the ball rolling on what has become the most controversial alteration in the fabric of major championship golf.

Tiger Woods is the defending champion, but the course where he has won four times doesn't come close to resembling the one where he won his first Masters in 1997.

Woods said he has no problem picking out the places on the course that look different to him.

"Every one they have changed," he said.

The par-three fourth is 35 yards longer and officially measures 240 yards. Woods said he has never hit "lumber" into the fourth, but he packs a five-wood and hit a three-wood in his practice round Monday. His partner, Mark O'Meara, hit a driver.

"That's a tough hole now, like it wasn't an easy hole before," Woods said.

The par-four seventh was made 40 yards longer at 450 yards, four years after it was made 45 yards longer. Along the way, it has managed to secure Woods' attention.

"It's one of the narrowest holes on the golf course, if not the narrowest," he said.

And there is the 11th, now a 505-yard par four, which has acquired 50 yards in distance, a new fairway that is shifted to the left and the addition of more than three dozen trees on the right side of the fairway -- all since 2002.

Woods, who has won twice this year on the PGA Tour, said he didn't necessarily agree with the changes, and isn't expecting the latest alterations to be the last he's going to see.

"We keep saying that, but I don't think that's going to be the case," he said.

Johnson said he'd take into consideration the scores and what clubs players are using to reach the greens before deciding whether the changes are successful. But if there are players who believe Johnson has removed the fun quotient from Augusta National, he isn't listening.

"I didn't know that a tough golf course was supposed to be a lot of fun," he said.

Make no mistake, this is one tough golf course. And for the first time since 2001, it's supposed to play firm and fast because there has been no rain except for a brief shower Saturday. With players hitting longer irons into harder greens, chances are good that there's going to be some carnage.

Mickelson said he expects the scores to be one shot higher each round. After winning the BellSouth near Atlanta by 13 shots last week, Mickelson seems to be peaking at a good time. He's using two drivers again this week, one with which he draws the ball and hits it longer than the other, and the second to hit a cut shot.

"The game plan was to take that momentum and bring it over here," he said.

As for momentum, the rest of the so-called Big Five are still looking for a little of what Woods and Mickelson may have found.

Retief Goosen may be the closest. He was second to Stephen Ames at the Players Championship and tied for fourth at the BellSouth. Last year at Augusta National, Goosen tied for third after closing with a five-under 67.

He may also be the best-suited player in the field to handle the notoriously fast greens.

"He's one of the best ever," Mickelson said.

Goosen said he's not concerned about the course changes and contends there could be a few surprises around the corner.

"There's a few mixed feelings out there, but at the end of the day, everybody is playing the same course.

"Some of the holes are actually playing shorter than it's played in the last five years purely because you get some run in the fairways," Goosen said.

"I think we're going to see a different course this year than we have in the last few years, being muddy and so on. I think we're going to see some really firm and fast greens for a change here."

Like Woods, Ernie Els is packing a five-wood with the intention of using it at the fourth. The last time he used it was in junior golf, he said. Els said he isn't playing poorly, just not good enough, but that could change quickly.

"I'm pretty close to maybe doing something special," he said. "Hopefully."

Vijay Singh won here in 2000 and tied for 18th the next year, but since then he has been seventh, tied for sixth, tied for sixth and last year tied for fifth.

That gives Singh high marks for consistency, a factor that is often rewarded at Augusta National. But this is a new Augusta National. Whether it's an improved model remains to be seen, but you can be sure there are a lot of men in green jackets who are keeping track, shot by shot, club by club.

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