- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 7, 2007

AUGUSTA, Ga. — For a second consecutive day, Uggh-usta National wreaked havoc on the world’s best golfers.

Continuing Thursday’s theme of scorecard savagery, virtually the entire field at the 71st Masters floundered haplessly around the emerald tarmac otherwise known as Augusta National yesterday. The combination of unseasonably cool weather and mercilessly hard greens left players shivering inside and out on the 7,445-yard, par-72 course.

Even unheralded co-leaders Brett Wetterich and Tim Clark hardly can claim to have solved the beauty-turned-beast after scratching to the top of the midpoint board at 142 (2 under), the highest 36-hole lead in relation to par at the Masters in 25 years.

Since the reactionary Greencoats first began tampering with founder Bobby Jones’ sacred sod eight years ago, there have been whispers of what could happen without the customary pretournament rain to soften the lengthened, narrowed layout.

Those hushed fears of conditions turning a once-electric, risk-reward, drama dynamo into a U.S. Open-style bogey march are coming to fruition this week as spring’s lighthearted major song has soured into a virtual dirge.

“It’s a grind, plain and simple. … This is probably as dry as it was in 1999. The only difference is 500 yards, about a billion trees and now we have rough out there,” four-time Masters champion Tiger Woods (147) quipped after escaping with a 74 despite six second-round bogeys and a pair of aqua balls at 12 and 13. “I felt like I turned basically a 90 into a 74 today, which is nice.”

Golf’s 31-year-old demigod is one of the few elite players still in contention at what certainly will be remembered as a bellwether Masters. Among the top 10 players in the current world rankings, only No. 7 Vijay Singh (144) enters weekend play within four shots of the rabbits on a leader board cluttered with more relative rabble than the Masters has seen in more than a decade.

Of the 13 players at 1 over or better, only Singh and 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy (145) have won a major.

Recent Slam staples like defending champion Phil Mickelson (149) and Retief Goosen (152) barely slipped in beneath the cut, which at 8 over was the highest since 1982 (10 over). And regular green-jacket contenders Ernie Els (154), Sergio Garcia (154) and Chris DiMarco (153) won’t be around for the weekend.

Conditions are expected to get even nastier over the next two days, with gusts up to 20 mph added to a forecast calling for today’s temperatures to start in the low 30s and never top 55. Given those conditions and the roster of relatively undecorated players above them on the board, the 71st Masters is starting to look like a potential battle between Singh and Woods.

“You’ve got to drive the ball well around here,” said Singh, the 44-year-old with three majors. “I think this is the toughest driving course we play regularly.”

Singh, of course, won the last Masters played in comparably cool conditions (2000) and already has collected two PGA Tour victories this season. The stolid Fijian is at his best when the weather deteriorates. Though he never has been a particularly strong British Open player because of his relatively high trajectory and somewhat questionable feel, all three of Singh’s major triumphs have come in somewhat adverse conditions.

Aside from his cold-weather outburst at the 2000 Masters, both his 1998 and 2004 PGA Championship victories (at Sahalee and Whistling Straits, respectively) came in windy conditions.

Unlike the steady Singh, Woods finds himself in remarkably good position after surviving another spotty day with his driver.

“I had a two-way miss going pretty much all day,” said the 12-time major champion, who somehow carded five birdies on the merciless layout despite hitting just five of 14 fairways. “I could hit it right or left [off the tee], and this is not a good place to have a two-way miss.”

After slumping to 5 over for the tournament with back-to-back bogeys on the first two legs of Amen Corner (Nos. 11 and 12), it looked as if Woods would head into the weekend with little chance to win his third consecutive major, particularly when he fanned his second to the par-5 13th into the green-front tributary from Rae’s Creek.

But just as he has done countless times before, Woods summoned his unparalleled combination of resolve and talent to fashion an up-and-down par at the 13th and then carded two birdies on his way to the clubhouse to spring back into the weekend mix.

“With the weather coming in on the weekend, I’m right there in the ballgame,” Woods said. “We’re all going to have to grind. Whether you’re a rookie or a vet, you’re going to have your hands full this weekend.”

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