- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 13, 2002

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Looks like we're going to have to wait another year to see how the New Augusta National is supposed to play. Mother Nature, who apparently disapproves of the 18th tee being moved back 60 paces, decided to get even with the greencoats by watering the course the first two days and dialing down the wind. With the greens much more receptive to long irons and there are many more of those this year because of the lengthening of some of the holes the players, as usual, are shooting lights-out.
The place to be yesterday if you weren't intent on following Arnold Palmer's painful Last Pilgrimage, that is was with the Vijay Singh-Thomas Bjorn group that teed off in midmorning. By the time Singh and Bjorn were done laying waste to the place, they had birdied or eagled 12 holes and played to a best-ball of 59.
Bjorn started out with five straight birds; Singh finished eagle-par-birdie-birdie it was glorious. It just wasn't what the guardians of Augusta had in mind when they put the course on the rack and stretched it from 6,985 to 7,270 yards. Instead of 87 golfers screaming for their sports psychologists, we have Singh at 9-under through 36 holes and several other players at 5-under or better. And when the rain-interrupted second round is completed today, we may have more.
At one point yesterday, after he and Bjorn had both birdied 12 and 13 and then Thomas had added another bird at 14 Singh turned to his partner and said, "Let's birdie the rest of 'em." And Vijay nearly did. So much for putting the fear of God into the field.
Singh's pursuers had best not let him get too far in front. Once he took the lead here two years ago, en route to a three-stroke win over Ernie Els, there was no catching him. And that was before he found a driver that enables him to "turn my ball over right-to-left" and deal with some of Augusta's nastier doglegs. Back in 2000, he wasn't particularly proficient at shaping his shots like that.
Yes, the Masters has once again turned into a birdie buffet. Retief Goosen, one of those caught out on the course when the deluge began, has 10 of them through 29 holes with Nos.13 and 15, the two par-5s on the back, still to finish this morning. Meanwhile, Padraig Harrington, who's one shot behind Goosen at 5-under, racked up 11 birdies in his first two rounds.
Frankly, Harrington doesn't know where they're coming from. Asked if he felt good about the position he was in, he said, "You know, I'm busy worrying about myself rather than the position I'm in. I'm so uncomfortable, I'm so not feeling great over the ball that that's all I can think about. I'm not thinking about other people or what's happening around me."
He's uncomfortable, and he's got 11 birdies in two days. The Masters folks are going to love to hear that.
It's early, sure, but Harrington could turn into the story of the tournament unless he suddenly gets comfortable. (And I'm not just saying that because we're both Irish.) He's been a world-class player for several years now; the only thing holding him back has been his predilection for finishing in second place. Three years ago, he had five seconds on the European Tour and no wins. Last year he had six seconds and one win, in the last event he entered. He's the Alydar of international golf, but if he can just take that last step and learn to close out tournaments
Yesterday he didn't seem concerned with any of that, though. What he was concerned with was that he had missed an eagle putt on 15, a 20-footer that "horseshoed out," as he put it. "I would have liked to have won a nice piece of glass," he said. "I've never won a piece of glass [specifically, a pair of crystal goblets] for an eagle here."
The Irish (read: the Republic of Ireland) haven't produced a lot of great golfers. They've been too busy fleeing famines. Christy O'Connor Sr. led the European Order of Merit for a couple of years in the '60s, and Harry Bradshaw lost a playoff for the British Open in '49, but they don't have much company in the pantheon. Whoops, I almost forgot about Eamonn Darcy. Darcy won a big Ryder Cup match over Ben Crenshaw in '87 after Gentle Ben broke his putter on the sixth green. In Irish golf, this is what passes for a golden moment.
What I'm trying to say in my roundabout way is that Harrington, still just 30, has a chance to be the best golfer in his country's history. His tie for 19th at Augusta two years back is Ireland's highest finish ever in the Masters. And wouldn't a green jacket look just fine on the lad? It sure would beat a pair of crystal goblets.


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