- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2005

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The stars are all aligned at Augusta National.

The Masters always holds a special cache as the season’s first major meeting of the game’s greats. But this year there’s an added buzz surrounding golf’s most prestigious event, a feeling that something truly spectacular is in the offing at this week’s 69th edition.

Fact is, the game’s biggest names never have arrived at golf’s shrine in the pines in the midst of such form. The top four players in the world rankings — Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson — come to Augusta National with eight worldwide victories among them this season.

Singh, the only member of the Fab Four without multiple wins thus far, is coming off a 2004 season in which he won nine times, recorded 18 top-10 finishes and ended Woods’ reign as world No. 1. If not for its close proximity to Woods’ three-major, nine-win 2000, a salvo that blunted the bounds of reason, Singh’s season likely would be heralded as unthinkably epic.

“What Vijay did last season was just silly,” said surging Australian superstar Adam Scott, himself a winner this season (Nissan). “Nine wins and a major [PGA Championship]? That’s surreal.

“And this season, we’ve got Tiger, Ernie and Phil all hot out of the box, all right on their games at the moment. It’s a very tough time to win a major but a great time for golf.”

Even if you allow the past its fuzzy, gilded edges, golf would seem to be entering a golden era every bit the equivalent of the 1970s, when an aging King, a seasoned Bear and a pesky Player battled a series of brilliant youngsters from Trevino and Watson to Miller, Weiskopf and Floyd.

Miller — Johnny, that is — admitted as much on air earlier this season. And though last year’s duel between Mickelson and Els was popcorn-caliber drama, there’s a feeling in the air at Augusta National that this year’s installment of the Masters could feature a larger cast of equally sublime stars.

“This should be a very interesting week,” Singh said in a rather truncated exchange with the media yesterday.

… Interesting because Woods has two slump-busting stroke-play victories this season (Buick Invitational and Doral), a new ball [Nike One Platinum], restored length and a new rub with Singh. Woods wasn’t amused when Tom Pernice, Singh’s best friend, requested three weeks ago that the PGA Tour test Woods’ driver for conformity after hearing that Woods was blowing his drives by Mickelson at Doral. Suffice it to say, Tiger and Vijay won’t be swapping smiles and stories at tonight’s champions’ dinner.

… Interesting because Singh is on record [in Golf Magazine] as picking himself, quite matter-of-factly, to win this week.

… Interesting because Els still is openly mystified that Mickelson, golf’s erstwhile major bridesmaid, chased him down with a back-nine 31 last year. The Big Easy never has been known as a sore loser, but every time anyone mentions last year’s Masters, he starts his answer with some diplomacy-free variation of the theme: “What in the name of Greg Norman was that guy doing growing a spine at my expense.” Suffice it to say that Els and Lefty aren’t driving-range pals either.

… Interesting because Mickelson picked up his tour-leading third victory of the season yesterday in Atlanta, winning the rain-plagued BellSouth Classic in a five-man playoff.

“I hit some squirrelly shots in the front, but my swing really started to feel good on the back nine,” Mickelson said. “I shot 4-under back there but really felt like I gave the tournament away with three or four other short ones I missed. … It’s certainly nice to head to the Masters with my confidence up and my game in this kind of shape.”

… Interesting because in spite of the rainy spring, Augusta National is playing harder and faster than the players have seen it since the massive lengthening of the layout to 7,290 yards before the 2002 event.

“It’s scary out there,” Augusta native Charles Howell III said. “I’ve been around here quite a few times over the years, and I’ve never seen the greens like this. Honestly, I’d say they’re running about 15 [on the stimpmeter]. You could see quite a show this week.”

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