- The Washington Times - Friday, April 12, 2002

AUGUSTA, Ga. Davis Love scoffed at the new-look Augusta National yesterday, cruising to a one-stroke lead in the 66th Masters courtesy of a bogey-free 67.
"To put it simple, it's just longer, but that's not that big of a deal," said Love of the par-72 layout that was lengthened by 285 yards in the offseason. "The added length doesn't make that much difference when you get a day like today when it's damp and the wind doesn't blow. I'll bet the scores today weren't much different than in years past."
True enough. The average score yesterday (74.118) was only fractionally higher than the average first-round score of the previous 10 years (74.067), dashing early-week talk about wildly inflated numbers on the 7,270-yard track.
All told, 21 players parlayed the soft, windless afternoon conditions into sub-par salvos, Spain's Sergio Garcia (68) and Argentina's Angel Cabrera (68) slipping into the clubhouse just behind Love.
"That was my best round at Augusta National, so I'm very happy about that, but I think a 64 or 65 was out there for the taking today," said the 22-year-old Garcia, still smarting a bit after missing a point-blank par put at the last hole. "I will say I doubt it will play this easy again this week, unless it rains, of course. Today was a red-number day, and it looks like most of the big names showed up to the party, so it should be fun."
That high-profile party of players includes defending champion Tiger Woods (70), multiple major winners like Ernie Els (70), Jose Maria Olazabal (70), Nick Price (70) and Vijay Singh (70) and top-10 dynamos like Phil Mickelson (69) and Retief Goosen (69).
Woods, who at 26 is attempting to become just the third player to win consecutive Masters titles, looked as if he might run away with the green jacket yesterday morning. Playing in a light breeze that made the morning rounds slightly more challenging, Woods birdied Nos. 3, 4 and 5 to claim an early share of the lead at 3-under. But a few balky drives on the back nine pulled golf's Goliath back to level par before he closed with birdies on Nos.15 and 17 and a brilliant par save at the 18th.
"That was a big par to close, because a lot of bad things can happen to you here if you hit it in the sticks, and you never want to close a round with a big number," said Woods, who yanked his 3-wood on No. 18 into the trees left of the fairway but recovered with one of his patented Houdini routines. "The lie was pretty good for pine needles. I roped a 4-iron, took out half a tree with my follow-through and ended up just short of the green. Overall, I'm satisfied, because the goal today was just even-par or better. You just like to ease yourself into the mix before the weekend at a major."
Love hasn't been in weekend position at a major in some time. And entering yesterday's round, nothing about his play of late suggested he would challenge at Augusta National. Though his record at the Masters is sterling (five top-10 finishes), the 37-year-old has been fighting to maintain his focus all season, missing the cut in three of his last five starts.
"I'm not shocked at the way I played today. I'm shocked at the way I've played the last four or five weeks, because I've really been swinging much better," said Love, who carded all five of his birdies from inside five feet. "I'm as healthy as I've been in a long time. I told somebody recently that maybe I ought to go back to being hurt, because I was playing pretty good last year for being hurt."
Love, who has battled back problems throughout his career and had disc-related neck problems all last season, is finally playing pain-free. And for the first time this season, his concentration level matched his good health.
"It's almost like it was easier to focus when I was hurt, because you can't fall asleep out there when it feels like someone is sticking needles in your neck," said Love, who collected his only major title at the 1997 PGA Championship at Winged Foot. "It's also very hard to fall asleep at Augusta National, because every shot requires so much thought. Whatever the case, I played well. And even though it's just Thursday, that's a major positive."
If the overall scoring was lower than expected given the course changes, at least one field fear was confirmed by yesterday's play. The primary thread connecting virtually every player on the leader board is length. Among those players at 2-under or better, yesterday's average driving distance was nearly 292 yards. The only three truly short-hitters among the group are Scott Verplank (281.0), Miguel Angel Jimenez (283.0) and Olazabal (276.0).
"I think it is going to be almost impossible for a shorter player to win here," said Garcia, who averaged 295.5 yards on his two measured drives. "Length seems to be a must here unless your name is Jose Maria."

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