Players critical of changes to Masters course

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The Independent Online

The mind games start as soon as a player sets off on his first practice at Augusta National, as most of those competing in the 64th US Masters did yesterday. Is the rough higher? Are the fairways narrower? These are questions not posed here until last year when the so-called "second cut" was introduced. Until then every blade of grass on the plot looked like fairway. As Tiger Woods has raised the bar, so the blades have been raised, too.

Jack Nicklaus, who returns for the 41st time after missing last year's event, is reportedly not impressed. "It looks like it's been done by somebody who doesn't play golf or understand the game," he has been quoted as saying. "They have taken a golf course played for years a certain way and now they have eliminated it."

As usual a couple of greens have been rebuilt and the odd tree added or taken out by Tom Fazio, the respected designer who is the consultant architect to Augusta National. The constant tinkering is something Phil Mickelson, who beat Nicklaus' son Gary in a sudden-death play-off at the BellSouth Classic on Sunday, also dislikes.

"I would like to be able to play the course as all the great players did down the years," Mickelson said. "When you had great people like Bobby Jones and Alistair Mackenzie create this incredible course, I don't think it's a place where anyone who can't break 90 should be making changes."

As if to prove the point that players play, designers design and coaches coach, Butch Harmon, son of the former Masters champion Claude Harmon and a winner himself once on the US Tour, did not break 80 in two rounds at Augusta on Sunday. For the rest of the week,Harmon will stick to coaching the world No 1, Woods.

With two wins this year, beating Woods at the Buick Invitational in February, and 15 in all, Mickelson, like David Duval and Colin Montgomerie, is keen to break his major duck. "The course could not be set up better for me," said the left-hander, who was third in 1996 and sixth last year. "It is a big help that the critical tee shots are right-to-left and my short game is better than the last few years.

"I know I can birdie every hole at Augusta normally, but by Thursday the conditions will be very difficult."