- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2007

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Little about yesterday’s opening-round play felt like the Masters.

It was cold at Augusta National, literally and metaphorically, on a day that looked more like a standard U.S. Open than the 71st Masters.

Few roars echoed around the shrine in the pines created by Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie nearly 75 years ago — but there were quite a few groans. The erstwhile par-72 drama machine, once the game’s most entertaining blend of risk-reward brilliance, forced the world’s best players into pure survival mode during a round that yielded just nine sub-par rounds and left career extras Justin Rose and Brett Wetterich atop the leader board with 69s.

Such a ho-hum score hasn’t merited the first-round lead at the Masters since 1998, when Fred Couples started with a 69 en route to a silver-medal finish behind Mark O’Meara.

Unfortunately, 3 under was the best score available given the combination of dry, cool, breezy conditions and years of recent course changes. When the greencoats reacted to advances in technology and the ravages of Tiger Woods — who shot a 73 yesterday — by adding rough, narrowing fairways and tacking on more than 500 yards of length to the MacKenzie masterpiece beginning in 1999, players predicted attrition would follow.

But until yesterday, nobody had experienced the 7,445-yard present-day beast after a week of rain-free weather. Players had experienced fiery, concrete greens at Augusta National many times, most recently in 1999 (when the course measured 6,985 yards). And they had experienced the stresses of the added length, approximately 30 yards a hole since 1997. But yesterday they felt the sting of both for the first time.

“This place has turned out to be one of the three toughest courses in the world,” three-time Masters champion Gary Player said after opening his 50th bid at Augusta National with an 83.

It wasn’t always so. The Masters used to be one of golf’s feel-good majors. The season’s Grand Slam opener used to be wildly entertaining, courtesy of a course where birdies were everywhere, eagles common and roars of excitement omnipresent.

No more.

The greencoats, understandably, wanted to protect the layout’s integrity from the kind of record-setting thrashing Woods put on the place in 1997. But yesterday the world found out what happens when the weather doesn’t douse the stiffened, lengthened property with challenge-softening rains: The drama machine becomes a U.S. Open venue, and the Masters loses some of its identity.

“It’s a grind,” Rich Beem said after showing some of the form that allowed him to capture the 2002 PGA Championship, shooting a 71. “There weren’t many roars out there, that’s for sure.”

And the new-look, ruthlessly difficult Masters can’t be justified with yesterday’s leader board. Of the nine players at 1 under or better, only Beem and David Toms (70) boast major titles. And both Beem and Toms (2001 PGA Championship) are five years or more removed from their single Slam outburst.

While 18 holes doesn’t a champion make, such a board is hardly a ringing endorsement for a layout that almost never yielded an unheralded, some might say unworthy, champion in its previous, kinder, gentler incarnation.

Pre-tournament mega-favorite Woods tried to save a forgettable first day with a late-afternoon charge, climbing to 1 under through 16 holes after birdies on both of the back-nine par-5s (Nos. 13 and 15). But uncharacteristically, the 12-time major champion bogeyed the final two holes after spraying drives wildly into the trees.

“I threw away a good round of golf,” Woods said after his closing bogeys dropped him into a tie for 15th. “It will be interesting this weekend with the course playing so dry — 1999 was probably the driest I’ve seen it. But with all the dry air [in the forecast], I’m sure by the time we’re done it will rival that.”

Conditions are expected to become increasingly chillier and windier over the next two days with tomorrow’s low in the 30s, and no rain is in the forecast to soften and slow the greens. The greencoats could choose to water the putting surfaces and place pins in more accessible spots. But conventional wisdom seems to be that they would prefer the winner not have the chance to break 280.

“It’s playing as hard as I’ve ever played it,” said Chris DiMarco, who finished with a 75. “Balls are bouncing 10 to 15 yards off of greens. … And I don’t see them slowing it down much. I think they want it where par is an excellent score, and that’s pretty standard now at most majors.”

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