Augusta builds up the barricades

It would be fair to say that the members of Augusta National have a reputation for being more crusty than the greens have been this week. Fair, but not entirely accurate.

On Wednesday, the club chairman, Jack Stephens, responded to the perennial question about when television would be permitted to provide live coverage of the front nine holes by saying that negotiations between the club and the CBS network were proceeding "slowly". Another reporter asked why movement was so glacial. Stephens paused for a moment before replying drily: "Because we don't want to show it." So do not bet on it happening any time soon.

A more sadistic form of humour - or at least that is how some players would depict it - is displayed in the way the course is set up. Although the chairman of the quaintly named competition committee, Will Nicholson, got his retaliation in first by asserting before this year's tournament "the greens are soft and substantially the same speed as last year", there weren't many players who agreed with him after Thursday.

Only seven of them broke par. Sandy Lyle, who shot 73, said they were as hard and fast as when he won in 1988. That year, recalled Lyle's then caddie, Dave Musgrove, "they almost turned blue on the Saturday". Lyle was not suggesting any element of approval in making the comparison either. He described the greens on Thursday, which he twice was unable to hold with two perfectly struck 7-irons, as "getting close to silly". But no laughing matter.

The device used for measuring the speed of greens is called a stimpmeter. Augusta National's are estimated to rate between 12 and 14. We can't be more positive than that because the club officials won't say, and they won't let anyone else measure them. When exceptional speed is combined with the extravagant slopes encountered on holes like the 14th, the combined effect means the exercise of trying to stop some putts below the hole has been appositely likened to trying to stop a ball on the third step from the bottom of a marble staircase. Nick Price guessed the course could play to as much as 50 on the Stimpmeter in some places.

It was with all this in mind that Paul Stankowski spent part of the previous week putting on the garage floor of his home in Dallas. He reckoned that "was running at about 23". Any temptation to laugh at this unusual practice regimen had to be stifled on Thursday when Stankowski shot a four-under- par 68 to lie just a shot off the pace, a lead he would have held himself if John Huston hadn't obviated the need to putt his putter to the test on the 18th by holing out with a 5-iron.

Frighteningly quick greens are an Augusta tradition. Indeed, the club, although only 63 years old, is synonymous with that word. But whereas some alleged purists complained at the revelation that some new tees were to be built on the Old Course at St Andrews, to lengthen the links in order to keep the advances in technology in check, at Augusta such stuff has been going on for years.

In the last couple of years, the extra 20 yards on the 13th and the additional five on the 10th have been openly declared. Sometimes, however, such alterations are done more discreetly, and competitors have arrived to find the tee on some hole is slightly farther back than before, or a swale has been inserted on the 13th to make the chip back more difficult, or some elephant mounds have mysteriously appeared on the 15th to make the drive more demanding. The club doesn't simply want to leave it to those notorious greens to be its line of defence.

There are, however, some things even the Augusta committee cannot control. Well, at least one. The weather. An especially warm spring hastened the appearance of the blossoms. Green is more than ever the predominant colour on the grounds, when there is also supposed to be an extravagant array of pinks, purples and yellows in the 365 acres of what was a horticultural nursery.

One thing is for sure. Mother Nature is not likely to be invited to become Augusta's first female member.