- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2006

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Oh, the poor mouthing that went on before the 70th Masters. You would have thought it was a convention of Lou Holtz impersonators.

“This time Augusta National has gone too far,” was the general overtone. “The course changes and added length have turned Golf’s Favorite Amusement Park into a veritable U.S. Open venue.” Indeed, the title of the 2006 Masters highlight film seemed a foregone conclusion: “Days of Whines and Magnolias.”

Come with me now to the interview room, where Rocco Mediate is holding forth on his first round 68

“That was fun,” he says. “I had a blast today.”

Fun? A blast? Rocco can’t be talking about the same torture chamber his fellow competitors had been describing earlier in the week. Maybe he took a wrong turn and played the par-3 course instead. Has anybody checked his scorecard?

If there’s a lesson to be learned from yesterday’s first round, it’s this: Never trust a golfer to give you the true lowdown on a course. All a club has to do is move a tee back or expand a bunker to give players the heebie-jeebies; pinch a fairway and you’ll have half the field hyperventilating into paper bags.

But as we saw in Round 1, all the pre-event angst was much ado about nothing. Vijay Singh shot a 5-under 67, Mediate a 68, Arron Oberholser a 69 and 15 others broke par. In other words, it was a fairly typical Thursday at Augusta, even though the diabolical Greencoats have added 155 more yards to the layout, introduced several more hazards and, to hear the players tell it, done everything but put a tollbooth on the Sarazen Bridge.

For the record, in last year’s first round there were five scores in the 60s (low: 67) and eight others below par. The year before, there were three in the 60s (low: 67) and 11 others below par. The year before that, there were three in the 60s (low: 66) and four others below par.

So much for the prophets of doom.

Why wasn’t there the predicted carnage yesterday? Because, as Singh put it, “The conditions are perfect. When it’s warm, the ball does go farther, and it makes the golf hole a lot shorter. That’s why, on the first hole, I hit driver, 9-iron, and [Wednesday] I hit driver, 5-iron. That’s the difference with the wind [with you rather than against you].”

Interesting, especially since No. 1 had drawn the biggest gasps from the contestants. It measures 455 uphill yards now, as compared to 410 a few years ago, and some of the old guys sounded like they might need a sextant, never mind a yardage book, to determine the length of their approach shots.

What’s becoming clearer and clearer at Augusta is that no matter what they do to the course, it amounts to little more than rearranging the furniture. Like laboratory rats figuring out a maze, the players, armed with their cutting-edge technology, inevitably come up with new strategies for defeating Father Par. In this instance, it took all of one day.

Another pre-tournament fear — that the increased length would work against the shorter knockers — also appears unfounded. Nobody calls Tim Clark “Boom Boom,” and yet there he is among the leaders after posting a 70. The dry conditions have brought “the field a little bit closer,” he said, firming the fairways and enabling the Clarks of the world to get more roll on their tee shots.

“Long hitters, their balls are going to be running off the fairway into the rough,” he said, “so it certainly closes the gap. … It almost felt like the way it played a few years ago when Mike Weir won when it really was wet. It felt like it played the same sort of [manageable] length.”

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, though, some players are still bracing for the worst. Retief Goosen, another in the group at 70, claimed “the greens are in places starting to get very much like Shinnecock [in the ‘04 U.S. Open] already, very brown and crusty. If the wind really picks up tomorrow and stays like this, the greens are going to be tough.”

Aw, come on. There’s no way the Lords of Augusta would allow something like that to spoil their tournament. Unlike the meanies at the USGA, they’d break out the hoses in a heartbeat if putting surfaces got too slippery. In fact, Singh wasn’t so sure they didn’t break them out Wednesday night.

“The greens were a lot firmer and faster [Wednesday] afternoon when I played,” he said. “It was very difficult [Wednesday] to stop the ball close to the hole.”

What it comes down to is this: Forty-nine of the top 50 golfers in the world are here, and players that talented can overcome just about any obstacle. The greens could be made of corrugated metal and Tiger Woods and Co. would still sink birdie putts.

They might opt for soft spikes, though — you know, to cut down on the noise. The folks at Augusta require a certain amount of decorum.

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