- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 7, 2007

AUGUSTA, Ga. — There’s still a lot of golf to play, sure, but this is shaping up as one of those Accidental Masters. Somebody should put a sign on the locker room door that says:

Be sure to double-check your scorecard. You might thank us for it later.

(This message is brought to you by Roberto De Vicenzo.)

Tim Clark was tied for the 36-hole lead with Brett Wetterich yesterday but only because — for the second time in his last three rounds here — he chipped in on the 18th hole. That might be why the interview room was only about a quarter full when Clark came by to comment on his 71/142/2-under-par start. Unless he keeps holing out on 18, the media horde figures, he probably isn’t going to win this thing.

Fortunately, the gritty little South African is used to being underestimated. Amused by it, too. “No one’s ever picked me to do well anywhere,” he said. “I’m always a little surprised. I’ve had a third at the PGA [2003], a third in the U.S. Open [‘05] and a second here [‘06], so my major record is pretty decent for somebody who hasn’t won one.

“Even after [Thursday], when I was on the leader board, no one mentioned me. But maybe that will just give me a little more incentive. It will probably take me winning a major tournament for people to recognize me.”

This could be that tournament, a Masters in which a 53-year-old Walrus battles a 31-year-old Tiger on even terms. It’s happened so far, at least. Tiger Woods, the Greatest Golfer on Earth, and Craig Stadler, the Golfer With the Greatest Girth, are currently tied for 15th at 147. Of course, it could be worse. Tiger could be tied with Tuna Parcells.

Clark, Wetterich, Vaughn Taylor (143), Jerry Kelly (144), Zach Johnson (144) — not exactly the guys who were supposed to be leading at this stage. Obviously, this latest nipping and tucking of Augusta National, coupled with the dry, hard conditions, has turned the course into an entirely different beast. Granted, Vijay Singh (144), Geoff Ogilvy (145) and Jim Furyk (146) are still very much in the mix, and Woods isn’t all that far back, but it’s looking more and more like a Charles Coody-Tommy Aaron-Larry Mize kind of year.

And if the mercury, as expected, plummets this weekend, Kelly could well be the man to beat. “I prepare for it,” the Madison, Wis., native said. “I’ve got my hand warmers. I know what gloves I’m going to wear. It’s the same clothing I wear at home when I practice. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve practiced when it’s been below freezing. You always want to get out there on the grass. You hit three balls, start to get frostbitten and go back inside.

“I love hearing [other players] gripe about things. ‘Oh, it’s going to be cold. It’s going to rain.’ I figure I have a couple-shot lead going into the AT&T; every year [the weather at Pebble Beach often being so foul in February].”

Yup, with temperatures in the 50s being forecast the next two days — along with strong winds — my picks right now are Kelly to win, Admiral Byrd to place and Sir Edmund Hillary to show.

You laugh, but the Masters seems that wide open. Paddy Harrington, whose 68 yesterday moved him solidly into contention at 1 over, analyzed the New Augusta this way: “I think the golf course is playing more like it played in the ‘80s, when I was watching on television. Similar shots are required. Last year on a hole like No. 7 you’d hit driver, 7-iron, but this year, because there’s a little bit more run in the fairways, it’s 3-wood, wedge.

“It helps the short hitters negate some of the distance between them and the very long hitters. Tim Clark, he’ll tell you himself he’s no big hitter, but he finished second here last year, and obviously he’s up there again. So the golf course does allow itself to be played many ways. It’s not limited to one particular style.”

Clark, meanwhile, is thrilled that the bogeys have far outnumbered the birdies this week, that nobody has put up a score lower than Paddy’s 68. “For me to go any lower than [71 at Augusta] is going to be really tough,” he said. Indeed, he has broken 70 only once in 18 rounds here (and needed one of the aforementioned chip-ins on the final hole to do it).

“There are just a lot of flags out there that I can’t go at. If I do, with the firmness of the greens, I’m not even going to keep it on the greens. But it looks like 4 under, 3 under could win the tournament, and that really suits the guys that are not hitting longer.”

So strap yourselves in for what should be one of the coolest weekends in Masters history — literally. Kind of a “Tin Cup” meets “Ice Age.” And if you need hand warmers, remember, Jerry Kelly is the fellow to see.


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