Golf: The Masters - Woods relishes duel with Duval

The Masters: Nicklaus may be missing, but new superstars promise a thrilling battle for the famous Green Jacket
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The Independent Online
SOME THINGS at the Masters never change. The prize fund for the 63rd playing of the tournament will be released quietly by officials of the Augusta National Golf Club over the weekend. Players know what Mark O'Meara won last year - $576,000 - but this is the only event of the year where they tee off without the up-to-date prize breakdown.

Even if the prize fund reaches the level of the Georgia State lottery this week - $190m (pounds 120m) - they would not care. Winning the title and getting to wear the Green Jacket denoting membership of the club is far more valuable.

Few other sporting events play on the aura of tradition as much as the Masters. Yet it is all an illusion. Changes happen all the time at Augusta but, like the new cluster of 18 trees between the 15th and 17th fairways, they appear to have been around forever.

It is less than 20 years since the greens were switched to bentgrass, the fastest putting surface, and 26 years since the dramatic 12th was shown on live television for the first time. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Sam Snead becoming the first player to be presented with the Green Jacket upon winning the event, while it only became the Masters in 1939, previously having been the Bobby Jones Invitational.

One tradition has come to an end. Jack Nicklaus, who underwent replacement hip surgery earlier this year, is not playing after 40 consecutive visits in which he won six times and provoked an outpouring of nostalgia with his sixth-place finish a year ago. "It is like your wife losing the diamond from her wedding ring," Greg Norman said of Nicklaus' absence.

But, in the great man's place, comes a contest to savour between Tiger Woods and David Duval. It is almost as if the rest of the field does not exist, which is as good a reason as any for getting a bet on an Ernie Els or a Lee Westwood.

The leading two stars are inescapable, however. Even Duval admits Woods is a star and Augusta is his patch. Having helped his mentor, O'Meara, into a Green Jacket last year, it is safe to assume that the 1997 record- breaking champion would like nothing more than to have O'Meara put a jacket on his shoulders.

Duval, the new world No 1, appears the man to stand in his way. Nothing seems to bother the man, not even being called a "dullard". "That's the way I like to play my golf, stress-free," he said. What does make him mad is having a double bogey on his card, but there have not been many of those recently.

A reserved character, Duval is none the less evolving under the spotlight into a class act, on and off the course. The latter has followed the former, where he has won four times this year and is the first man since Doug Sanders in 1966 to win the two weeks prior to the Masters.

Sanders went on to finish fourth at Augusta. As well as Duval is playing - he leads six of the 10 statistical categories on the US tour - he will need fortune to remain on his side to make his third win in a row his first major. "I think it is a matter of time," Duval said of breaking his duck at the highest level. "A lot of stuff has to come together in a given four weeks of the year."

Last year's runner-up, Duval would not swap his 11 wins in the last 18 months for a big one. "No, because they will be an important part of winning a major," he said. "And I'm definitely not going to give away the Players win."

As for the great rivalry, both players are right to downplay it, at least until Sunday afternoon. "I have got to go out and play against the course as well as the rest of the field," Woods said. "David is not playing against me, or me against David. I've got to get myself into contention on the back nine on Sunday, just like in '97."

Two years ago Woods was out of sight by that time but Duval picks up the same theme. "You can't put a rivalry label on it yet because Tiger and I have not come down the last nine holes at the Masters or the US Open or any other major. Until that comes to pass, it's hard to make the comparison with Nicklaus-Palmer or Nicklaus-Watson."

As for feeling that Duval is short on puff after the last two wins, forget it. "I won't have to rely on adrenalin. If you can't get pumped up for the Masters, you need to do something else."

Colin Montgomerie, despite leaving last week's BellSouth Classic down in the dumps, has come around to that view. But it might not last. "Thursday is very important," the Scot said. "Hopefully, I can get off to a decent start, a 70 or 69. Then I could be up there on Sunday but if not, this is not a course where you want to be pressing to get back into it."

While Montgomerie's confidence is fragile, Westwood is buoyant, despite sleeping badly on Tuesday night with the symptoms of a heavy cold. On his third appearance at Augusta, the 25-year-old is feeling more comfortable at the venue. "There is nothing like actually playing somewhere competitively to give you experience," he said. "Having watched it on TV for so many years, I was a bit overwrought with the whole thing when I first came here."

Westwood plays with O'Meara and the US Amateur champion, Hank Kuehne, for the first two days. Due to the size of the field, with 96 players the fourth-largest ever, play will be in threeballs for the first two days for only the second time. For the first time the draw will be flipped on Friday, as at other tournaments, rather than having the leaders off last in the second round.

"We wanted to make it fair for the players by giving them a morning and an afternoon time," said William "Hootie" Johnson, the new Augusta chairman. Along with the lengthening of the course, the addition of rough and a re-jigging of the exemption criteria, Johnson has presided over what appears to be radical changes. "We want to keep up with the game of golf worldwide," Johnson added. "But we take a little time to make up our minds." No change there, then.

TODAY'S TEE-OFF TIMES

1300 G Sarazen, B Nelson, S Snead (honorary starters)

1315 B Casper, G Brewer, D Ford

1326 S Pate, S Hoch, B Estes

1337 J Daly, G Hjertstedt (Swe), O Browne

1348 S Lyle (Sco), C Pavin, S Verplank

1359 C Stadler, C Parry (Aus), R Mediate

1410 R Floyd, C Montgomerie (Sco), S Jones

1421 JM Olazabal (Sp), B Glasson, B Chamblee

1432 E Els (SA), D Love, T Lehman

1443 J Leonard, S Maruyama (Japan), J Huston

1454 F Couples, S Elkington (Aus), S McCarron

1505 B Faxon, JP Hayes, T Dodds (Nam)

1516 T Watson, *M Kuchar, S Appleby (Aus)

1527 I Woosnam (Wal), P Sjoland (Swe), A Magee

1538 T Woods, *S Garcia (Sp), T Herron

1549 L Mize, C Franco (Par), J Sluman

1600 T Aaron, MA Jimenez (Sp), C Perry

1611 G Player (SA),*T Immelman (SA),S Stricker 1622 B Crenshaw, *T McKnight, L Roberts

1633 S Ballesteros (Sp), H Sutton, B Mayfair

1644 J Maggert, V Singh (Fiji), P Stewart

1655 N Faldo (Eng), B Watts, J Durant

1706 F Zoeller, M Ozaki (Japan), F Funk

1717 A Palmer, *J Miller, W Wood

1728 B Langer (Ger), M Calcavecchia, D Clarke (N Ire)

1739 P Mickelson, G Norman (Aus), J Parnevik (Swe)

1750 L Janzen, J Cook, F Lickliter

1801 J Haas, B Andrade, T Bjorn (Den)

1812 M O'Meara, *H Keuhne, L Westwood (Eng)

1823 D Duval, N Price (Zim), B Tway

1834 C Coody, B Jobe, P-U Johansson (Swe)

1845 M Brooks, S Cink, D Toms

1856 P Azinger, J Furyk, G Day

US unless stated, all times BST;

*denotes amateurs

TV TIMES

21.00-22.30 BBC2, 22.30-23.30 BBC1

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