Golf - US Masters: Augusta adds trees, length - and rough

The famous course has a few new tricks to give the best a sterner test.
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The Independent Online
WHAT IS the difference between a jinx and a coincidence? The fact that no player has followed a victory in Wednesday's pre-Masters par-three competition at Augusta National by donning a green jacket has reached superstitious proportions. Players have been known to incur the wrath of their partners by ruining the chance of picking up some smart crystal by dunking a tee shot in the water or missing a few putts.

On the other hand, the fact that no one has gone on to win the Masters in the same year as a victory at the Players' Championship is treated as a coincidence. Several balls may have ended up in the pond at Sawgrass's famous 17th hole but no one deliberately aimed to miss the island green. Certainly not David Duval, who, not unreasonably, assumed that winning his biggest tournament to date would only enhance his prospects of earning a first major championship this week at Augusta.

"Any time you win, it helps you the next time, it builds your confidence," said the new world No 1. "Each time there is something different you have done to put in the library for the future."

In Duval's favour is the trend for Augusta to reward those in the sort of form that has brought the 27-year-old 10 wins in the last 18 months. Ian Woosnam, in 1991, and Fred Couples a year later had both just become the world No 1, while Tiger Woods was the hottest new property around in 1997.

But Augusta is also known for its surprises. Last year Mark O'Meara, at 41, became the oldest first-time winner and just the third to lead only after the 72nd hole. Duval was the joint runner-up. "It was my first opportunity in a major and I did everything I could. I shot a 67 in the final round and it took three birdies in the last four holes to keep me out of a play-off. I certainly think I am capable of winning," he said.

While Duval and Woods, who is enjoying being out of the full glare of the spotlight, will start as the favourites at Augusta, talk of a rivalry is premature. That comes only with a duel down the back nine of a major. "It would be kind of neat if that happened," Woods said. "But as for David and me being dominant, there are too many other great players."

Duval said: "I hope it comes to pass. It would be good fun. I appreciate what people are getting at and I'm not going to downplay it, but I don't think you can necessarily overlook other players."

But if the list of potential winners, including Lee Westwood after rediscovering his form at the Players', is as wide open as ever, Augusta National itself is not. For the first time, so-called rough will line what will remain generous fairways. Since this rough will be cut at 13/8in, we are not talking about US Open hay, but with the greens as severe as ever, it will make it harder to stop the ball on the putting surfaces.

"Augusta with rough? On a hard, fast day? Tiger's record of 18 under could last forever," said Ernie Els. So far opinion is divided on whether the rough will raise scores. What O'Meara believes is this: "You are going to have to think about your tee shot a little more."

Four holes have been further altered. The tees at the second and 17th have been pushed back 20 to 30 yards, while the 15th will play longer as the mounds on the right of the fairway which propelled the longer drives forwards have been replaced with a dozen pines. More players may have to lay up at the par-five second but the longest hitters will still make it home in two.

That hole and the par-five 15th may not be affected much, but the 17th will play harder with the drive having to be threaded between Eisenhower's tree on the left and the new ones by the 15th on the right. The other hole to change is the 11th, where flood control has meant Rae's Creek at the back of the green has been widened and the green lifted by two feet.

Not everyone is happy with the biggest changes at Augusta since the grass was changed on the greens. Greg Norman complained he would not be playing the same course as all the past great champions, but Jack Nicklaus pointed out that since he shot a then record 64 in 1965, "the course was not the same as it is now". In all, there have been 69 changes to the layout in the 66-year existence of the club.

The changes are a reaction to Woods' 270 total two years ago. "Part of our reasoning is that these young men are hitting the ball a lot longer," said William "Hootie" Johnson, the new chairman.

But it is not as if all recent Masters champions are monster hitters. Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Jose Maria Olazabal, Ben Crenshaw and O'Meara are not. Yet the changes seem to help the longer men. "The more difficult, the longer, the deeper the rough, whatever they change, gives an advantage to the long hitter," said Davis Love. Bring on Duval versus Woods.