On sunday, theday Morgan Pressel won in the California desert and Adam Scott won in Houston,Tiger Woods played a leisurely nine holes at Augusta National. He had noplaying partners, and almost nobody was watching. Steve Williams carried thebag, and Hank Haney, Tiger's swing coach, carried an umbrella he did not need.When Woods came off the 9th green, there was a column of sweat between theshoulder blades of his shirt, and his shoes were speckled with green dust,spring pollen off the dogwoods. It was only Sunday, the Sunday before MastersSunday, and the course was already hard and dry--just the way the Augustabosses want it.
Last week inAugusta--maybe Al Gore was noting this too--the days felt more like summer thanspring, and the golf-centric Augusta forecast for this week was predicting fourdry days for the tournament. There's never been a dry year to truly access thetotal impact of all the course changes in the Hootie years: growing rough,planting trees, moving tees. The bright-red sign, weather warning, with twogray clouds split by a yellow thunderbolt, has been a regular presence on thescoreboards since 2002. There has been a drenching rain every year. This couldbe the April when we finally see the course as William (Hootie) Johnson and hisarchitect, Tom Fazio, intended it. On Sunday, the Sunday before Masters Sunday,you could land a cut four-iron in front of the 1st green and watch it trickleoff the back. Try making par from there.
Fast andfirm--you may remember parched Hoylake at the British Open that Woods won lastJuly--diminishes the importance of the driver and accentuates the role ofdistance control, lag putting, craftiness. As Tiger leads in those categoriestoo, he should still be your man. But dry is good for Chris DiMarco, LukeDonald, Tom Watson and Mike Weir, among others. Larry Mize lives.
The National, ofcourse, will be green. It's Augusta, birthplace of American Green. On your HDTVit'll be especially green. But the players' tees won't show any dirt when theypull them back out. It's close to bone dry underneath the green paint. The mainsound on Sunday came from subterranean pumps sucking moisture out of thefairways.
The Sunday beforeMasters Sunday is a peculiar, pleasant hybrid of a day at Augusta National.There are no roars spreading across the grounds, not even polite applause. PhilMickelson made a 1 on 16, and who saw it? No reporters, no cameras, nospectators. Until last week Tiger had never played on the Sunday before MastersSunday, a day when the course is open to members, their guests and tournamentcontestants and closed to spectators. A woman in a straw hat was playing a fewholes ahead of Tiger. On Sunday, 50 or so Masters competitors played.Some--Woods, Ernie Els and Charles Howell among them--played as singletons.Others, including Davis Love III and Gary Player, played with amateur friends.Some played with countrymen (José María Olaàbal and Miguel Angel Jimenez;Brett Wetterich and Chad Campbell). Nobody was grinding. Love, as is hispractice-round custom, chit-chatted his way around with his friend PeterBroome, a Titleist executive. The changes at 11 (wider fairway, fewer trees)?Unnoticed by Love's group. Well, maybe one guy was grinding. Tiger played twoshots from the fairway bunker on one.
Sunday, byanecdotal evidence, was slightly busier than usual, but the six days before itwere quieter. When the Tour stop was in Atlanta the week before the Masters,players would come over on Monday and Tuesday. Nobody, of course, commuted fromHouston. Phil Mickelson, who last year won in Atlanta before winning theMasters, arrived at Augusta last Thursday, doing as much hanging out asanything else. He loves the place. With Tiger, it's harder to tell.
The Sunday beforeMasters Sunday is not about quotes, Golf Channel analysis, or"what-did-you-hit-into-13?" locker-room conversation. It's a chance tobreathe. A reporter from The Augusta Chronicle ran after Tiger and asked ifthis year marked the first time he had played on the Sunday before. Yes, Tigersaid. What did he like about it? "The peace and quiet," Tiger replied.What more needs to be said?
The Chroniclepublishes its massive Masters preview section on the Sunday before MastersSunday, with hundreds and hundreds of column inches devoted this year to Tiger;to Billy Payne, the new Augusta National chairman; to Mickelson, the defendingchampion; to Howell and Vaughn Taylor, Augusta homeboys--and on and on it goes.Breakfast can turn easily into lunch by the time you're done turning thosepages.
A lady wasselling the Chronicle on Washington Road on Sunday, but there were no RichmondCounty sheriffs patrolling the famous boulevard that fronts the National.Within the gates, things were mellow too. The gleaming, unadorned white golfbag of one Severiano Ballesteros, 50 and playing this year, stood on thesidewalk outside the bag room for half an hour, protected only by the fourletters on its side, seve. Who would touch Seve's bag? Nobody who was there onSunday.
Dean Wilson, aMasters rookie, shopped in the pro shop. Rory Sabbatini sat on a wood slab of abench beside the practice putting green and enjoyed a smoke. The club caddies,and there were scores of them on the course, worked their loops with greensatchels against their chests, the sacks filled with green divot mix.
Small packs ofkids, in groups of six and eight, were being trained in the fine art of trashcollection. A snack-and-beverage cart, resort-course style, was piled high withthose orange crackers with the peanut butter on them, protected by plasticwrappers that even Gary Player, a 71-year-old muscle man, struggled to open. Aparade of carts, carrying hoses and members' jackets and pine needles,crisscrossed the grounds, pedal to the metal, with no fans to worry about.Robins and cardinals ruled the air, and there was no blimp.
Love, a veteranof 17 Masters, was remembering the course from the mid-'80s, when he couldcarry the fairway bunker on 18 with a wooden driver. Camilo Villegas, anotherMasters rookie, was remembering the course from a much softer day in mid-March,when he was sharing the place with Jack Nicklaus and Donald Trump and HootieJohnson.
Villegas's namewas on the giant scoreboard beside the 1st fairway, his Colombian flag amongthe 18--nice number--flying above the scoreboard. Beneath the board was alittle hut, big as a breadbasket and in the shape of a Monopoly house, waitingfor pairing sheets, its green paint so fresh you could smell the oil. Theboard, with 97 names on it, began with Robert Allenby (Australia) and StephenAmes (Canada) and concluded with Y.E. Yang (South Korea) and Fuzzy Zoeller(Floyds Knobs, Ind.). All the boxes, hundreds and hundreds of them, were empty.No green numbers, no red numbers, nothing but white space. By the end ofMasters Sunday, all that will be different. The scoreboard will be a sea ofgreen, dappled with very little red, for those who can better 288 for 72holes.
How many willbreak par? If Haney's umbrella stays in its sheath and the flags atop thescoreboard flap in the swirly April breeze and the greens get as dry as GregNorman's throat when he was gagging it away to Nick Faldo 11 years ago,probably darned few.
The Sunday beforethe real Sunday, all you could do was guess.
•Up-to-the-minute Masters scores and photos at GOLF.com