Golf: Watson and Clarke ride learning curve

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The Independent Online
By Andy Farrell in Augusta

PRACTICE rounds at Augusta National are all about getting a feel for any subtle changes that might have been made to Bobby Jones' timeless classic.

Many have been the players who have driven off the first tee and wondered whether the fairway bunker, the tee, the nearby practice putting green or the clubhouse have been moved. Being Augusta National, the latter cannot be ruled out.

The course can take years to learn. "Lying in bed, playing Augusta on paper isn't so bad," said Colin Montgomerie, whose highest Masters finish is 17th three years ago. "The problem arises on the first tee."

Not even Tiger Woods won on his first appearance and only Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, apart from the first two years of the tournament, has done so. This year's field of 98 includes 13 first-timers, including the Ryder Cup players Darren Clarke and Ignacio Garrido, Sweden's Gabriel Hjertstedt and the Amateur champion, Craig Watson.

Clarke has spent the past two days touring Augusta with Montgomerie, Ian Woosnam, the 1991 champion, and man of the moment Lee Westwood. Yesterday was going to be a day off for the Ulsterman, who has played 18 holes each day from Saturday, but he said: "This course is not like any other. You have to play it a lot to become accustomed to it."

So far the Open runner-up has learned: "Don't hit the ball the wrong side of the flag," he said. "But that means nearly everywhere."

Clarke received a menu from the International Players' Dinner signed by Westwood, which spurred him to qualify this year. The invitation arrived five days after Westwood received his, making for an anxious few days for their manager, Andrew Chandler.

"We have a healthy rivalry," Clarke said of his relationship with New Orleans winner.

"His success has heightened my own personal expectations. I feel I can do an awfully lot better than I am. This week will be a tough challenge, but the place the does not scare me."

The good news for the newcomers is that a mild winter and a recent cold snap has brought the azaleas into bloom at just the right time. The even better news is that rain is forecast for this afternoon when the course is closed and the players take part in the par-three tournament.

"I don't know what happens after they close the course, but they do something," said Davis Love. "They suck the air out of the place. The banks are shaved and the greens are rolled."

A soft and consumer friendly Augusta will affect the scoring and the sweepstakes at Craig Watson's home club of East Renfrewshire. The members have pounds 5 on where they think Watson will four-putt for the first time.

The 31-year-old who works in his family's lighting shop was not offended by the idea. A self-deprecating soul, he admitted: "I've always been rubbish on really fast greens."

Gabriel Hjertstedt qualified by winning the BC Open in the week when the Ryder Cup players were away at Valderrama. The 26 year old from Helsingborg won his US Tour card after a disastrous year in Europe in 1995. After two second places the previous year, he hardly made a cut, ran out of money and slept in his car.

One night in Italy he was rushed from a restaurant to hospital with a severe cramping in his throat. "I was so far down, I was afraid to ask for help," he said. "It got to the point where I didn't think it was worth living."

The symptoms continued the following year until a dentist diagnosed a dislocation in his lower jaw and removed two wisdom teeth. Now, when he says he has a "buzzing feeling" it is because "being here is like going to St Andrews for the first time".

Colin Montgomerie, meanwhile, resumes his love-hate relationship with Augusta without his usual caddie, Alastair McLean, who has returned to Britain for an operation on his back after being told he could do irreparable damage by carrying a bag over such a hilly course. On the advice of the twice winner Ben Crenshaw, Monty has engaged a local caddie for the rest of the week.

Americans are still trying to get to grips with the 34-year-old Scot, dubbed the "Goon from Troon" in one publication.

"If I took everything written about me to heart, I'd be in a mental institution," Montgomerie said. "You can't go through life saying as much as I have without regretting the odd thing. Certainly, I do. But I have opinions and I'll continue to air them."