Golf: Veterans strain as gale-force winds strafe play

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The Independent Online
WATCHING David Tom's second shot at the 10th drift into a greenside bunker, the ball taken off line by a sudden gust of wind, Andrew Murray predicted the calamities that would leap on to the Masters leaderboard. Murray, the former European Tour player who is now a member of the BBC radio commentary team, could see difficulties ahead for even the most experienced and accomplished players. "If this wind gets stronger you won't see many of them in red figures," he said.

It was about midday and the early starters were having the best of conditions that would make some holes, especially the 15th, almost unplayable.

If the effect of violent storms that ripped through the southern states of America - claiming 32 lives in Alabama before slamming into the suburbs of Atlanta to leave many homes and businesses in ruins - put golf into proper perspective, nobody could remember such a day at the Masters.

At first merely capricious, causing only problems in club selection, the wind grew in strength to the bafflement of even the game's longest- serving players. "If it hadn't rained so heavily overnight, softening the greens, I don't think you would have seen many players breaking 80," Jack Nicklaus said. Ten did not. Making his 40th appearance in the Masters, golf's greatest achiever found himself using shots he had not called on in years. "Just to get around there in par was a feat," Nicklaus said after finishing one over. "I've known wind here before but never such problems in the opening round. If the greens had remained hard goodness knows where the ball would have gone".

Arnold Palmer came from the same direction. "In all the 44 times I have played here I have never known anything like it," the great veteran, four times a winner at Augusta, said. "In these conditions you want to send the ball in low, adopt the sort of techniques that are often necessary in the British Open but that's not possible here because of the undulations."

Gary Player, at 62, and with three Masters victories on his record, described the experience as a guessing game. "You decided what shot to play, then the wind would come up to change your mind," he said. "Judgement is impossible when the wind is likely to gust while the ball is in flight. No amount of experience can solve something like that."

The defending champion, Tiger Woods, spoke of seeing a pile of leaves swirl through 360 degrees. "There was no pattern to the wind," he said, "no way that you could be sure where the wind was coming from or with what force."

Standing over the 10-foot putt on the 17th, his trouser legs flapping like flags, Woods stood back three times before he could be sure of maintaining his balance. "You'd think that you were standing solidly then it would come to keel you over," Woods added.

Bulk was no advantage to John Daly, one of the tournament favourites, whose 77 included a penalty stroke at the 17th for the double hit with his putter he called after consulting his playing partner, Ian Woosnam. If the exposure of elevation made the 17th green particularly hazardous just getting to the par-five 15th amounted to a huge gamble. The 15th ranks as the easiest hole at Augusta. On Thursday it held terrors. Ignacio Garrido, of Spain, took 11, sending his ball into the water in front of the green three times. Bill Glasson took 10, so did Constantino Rocca. Tom Lehman's score was ruined by an eight there. Scott McCarron got the only eagle.

Phil Mickelson's birdie was a heart-stopper from the moment he sent off his second shot, going for a green where the two biggest hitters in the field, Daly and Woods, had chosen to lay up. "It was such a long shot that you just had to hope the wind wouldn't suddenly get up," Mickelson said. "I was watching the ball in flight, willing the wind to stay down. Getting there was a feat, as good a shot as I've ever played."

When Woosnam reached the 15th at two under he was looking to share the lead. But he too became a victim, dropping two shots and a further two over the finishing holes.

Tall or short, they all suffered. "I learned a lot out there," Woods added. "The wind made me think more than I ever had to since turning professional. It was hard even to take the putter back on line for the practice swing."

Despite bleak forecasts of winds gusting up to 24mph, conditions were easier when the second round got underway yesterday but nobody could be sure that the distant storm had blown itself out. In any case the scoring suggested that the players were a lot more comfortable. Craig Stadler, who came in at plus seven, ran four birdies out of the front nine, reaching the turn at 35. The leaders were waiting and hoping. All gazed anxiously at the mottled sky.