The Masters Chronicles XX: Pretournament
By BILL HUFFMAN
AUGUSTA, Ga. – As the 73rd Masters gets ready to bloom, the “Paddy Slam’’ is not in big, red letters on the marquee outside Magnolia Lane.
No, the headliner this year – as it has been at Augusta National in recent memory — is “Tiger vs. Phil.’’
Apparently Padraig Harrington’s pursuit of his third consecutive major championship will have to wait even if it would move the Irishman into some storied company such as Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Woods, who have all won three big ones in a row.
It’s just the way it is, even if Tiger doesn’t like to talk about Phil and Mickelson doesn’t like to talk about Woods. Hey, we in the media try to stir it up every year, but for the most part Tiger and Phil march to their own beat.
Asked about his rivalry with Mickelson, Woods gave the usual misdirection answer.
“Well he and I certainly have competed head-to-head quite a few times, and primarily it’s been in the States,’’ Woods said, choosing his words very carefully so as not to stir up his angry caddie, Stevie Williams.
“I would say the person I’ve gone head-to-head against most is Ernie (Els), and that has been all over the world.’’
Notice that Woods, who in 15 years at the Masters still has not muttered a memorable quote while collecting four green jackets, called Phil “he,’’ which is OK because Phil doesn’t like to use Tiger’s name, either.
Asked if he thought his three majors would have been enhanced had he beaten Woods, Mickelson said he thinks . . . not.
“I don’t know. I don’t feel as though any of last year’s majors when he didn’t compete were detracted. I think they are still every bit as important,’’ Mickelson said of Woods’ absence in the British Open and PGA Championship when Tiger was recovering from knee surgery.
“I don’t know, as far as enhancing the tournament wins when he’s in the field. I haven’t sat down and looked at how many tournaments I’ve won with him in the field as opposed to against.’’
Actually, in Phil’s two Masters wins in 2004 and ’06, Woods finished tied for 22nd (worst finish here as a professional) and tied for third, respectively. But even in ’06, Woods never got closer than the final three strokes of Mickelson.
However, there was one close Masters encounter, and for Lefty it was not the best of memories.
That came in 2001 when golf’s dynamic duo were paired together in the final group on Sunday, and Tiger, who entered the day with a one-shot lead, put up a 68 to Phil’s 70 to win by three shots.
The following year, when Woods repeated, Mickelson again finished third but was never really in it, finishing five shots back.
So will this time around bear any similarity to 2001? Well, both enter the Masters in classic form, as Tiger won his last time out at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in dramatic fashion, while Mickelson missed the cut last week in Houston.
If there is two things we know by now it’s that Woods likes to win back-to-back and Mickelson is often at his best when he misses the cut the week prior.
With 10 players in the 96-player field, the Valley of the Sun will be well-represented this week at the Masters – IF you don’t mind calling international players with second homes in Arizona “home boys.’’
Hey, Aaron Baddeley, Paul Casey, Tim Clark, Mathew Goggin and Geoff Ogilvy live in the Scottsdale area most of the year so why not?
The rest of the local contingent includes PGA Tour players Billy Mayfair, Pat Perez, Chez Reavie and new resident Bubba Watson along with amateur Drew Kittleson, who was invited as the runner-up in the 2008 U.S. Amateur Championship.
There are 18 ways you can qualify to play in the Masters. Ogilvy was the “most qualified,’’ as he showed up in five categories. Fellow Australian Baddely was next with four categories.
Ogilvy deserves the role as favorite "home boy,” as he has won twice this season including the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson and the season-opening Mercedes Championship. But Casey, a former Arizona State star from England, might be the hottest as he is coming off his first PGA Tour win ever in last week’s Shell Houston Open.
Reavie and Perez were winners of the Canadian Open and Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, respectively, while Watson and Mayfair got in because they qualified last year for the season-ending TOUR Championship. South African Clark is currently in the top 50 of the world rankings, while Aussie Goggin was a member of that top 50 at the end of 2008, which also gets you in.
FYI, Reavie will be playing in his first Masters as a professional after missing the cut in 2002, when he qualified as an amateur by winning the U.S. Public Links Championship. Kittleson, a Florida State sophomore from Scottsdale, will be playing in the biggest tournament of his life after just turning 20 last week.
UNDER THE RADAR?
With all the attention on Woods, Mickelson and Harrington, Ogilvy may have a good chance to slip under the radar. The Aussie is having his best year yet, and he said he “feels good’’ about Augusta National as he enters his fourth Masters.
“I love this place. I love coming here every year,’’ said the 2006 U.S. Open champ. “I’ve always thought this was my best chance in a major (championship) because this course best suits my game.’’
It just hasn’t turned out that way for the 31-year-old Ogilvy, as his best finish in the annual chase through the azaleas and dogwoods has been a tie for 16th in 2005 — although he’s never missed a cut.
“The first year you come here you’re a bit of a tourist, aren’t you?’’ said the congenial Ogilvy, who talks softly but carries a big stick. “You get that out of your system, and then you’re trying to win it. . . .
“The greens here are very similar in style to the Sandbelt (courses) in Melbourne, where if you miss it on the wrong side, you’ve got no chance. The putts also break like they do in Melbourne . . . so there are a lot of things that suit me.’’
But mostly Ogilvy said Augusta National is a “learning experience’’ and this will be his senior year.
“On this course more than others, you have to know where to hit it and know where not to hit it; avoid the places you’re uncomfortable with,’’ he said. “I know I’m a good player, and I know I could (win here), but lots of stuff has to go your way.’’
DREW DRAWS RAVE REVIEW
Mickelson and Kittleson hooked up for a practice round this week, and the play of the kid impressed the veteran.
“Drew Kittleson has a heck of a game, hits it a long way and has a good short game,’’ Lefty reported. “I think he’s going to have a good week.’’
Like Mickelson, Kittleson has been working recently with noted guru Butch Harmon. Being from the Harmon “stable’’ automatically makes them the two players “buds,’’ Mickelson concurred.
“I do enjoy playing with guys who are in their first couple of Masters,’’ Mickelson said of a tradition started by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. “I would take him to a couple of spots (on the greens) that were putts that we would always have to certain pins – 40-, 50-foot putts that are tricky and might break one way or another.’’
But to Mickelson’s surprise, Kittleson already knew the freaky routes of Augusta National’s greens, primarily because he has driven up from the FSU campus in Tallahassee, Fla., on numerous weekends since he got his invitation. That’s one of the perks of the Masters is that you can play the course as much as you want after you get the letter in the mail.
“He’s been out here practicing and knows the greens,’’ Mickelson noted. “That’s why I said I think he’s going to have a good week. There were not any surprises for him on this course.’’
But one thing you can count on, there will be!
CLARK HAS ‘NO CHANCE’
Clark captured the Par 3 Tournament on Wednesday, which is like breaking your arm before the Masters even starts.
No player in the 49 years of this special event held on the short course at Augusta National has ever won the Par 3 contest and gone on to claim the green jacket. The part-time resident from Scottsdale finished 5-under par for the nine holes, including a hole-in-one at his ninth hole.
But the highlight of the day was Greg Norman planting a big kiss on his caddie, wife Chris Evert, after scoring an ace at the sixth hole. The Shark, who has not played in the Masters since 2002, got an invitation this year for his tie for third in last year’s British Open.
Obviously, Evert, who accompanied him to Royal St. George’s last year, is a bit of a good luck charm. Now if she can help Norman overcome his six previous disasters at the Masters, including his debacle in 1996, when he lost a six-shot lead in the final round to Nick Faldo, that would be the story of the year in golf, hands down.
Apparently the Tiger-proofing of Augusta National is complete, as tournament chairman Billy Payne announced that the club actually took 10 years off its length this year, trimming it back to 7,435 yards. To do that the first hole was shortened to 445 yards.
“I think we have it about right,’’ Payne declared. But asked if that’s the final number, Payne deferred: “I won’t be the chairman when that decision is ultimately made.’’
Payne’s answers have become so patented that this year for the first time in recent memory, no one asked the chairman when Augusta National would admit its first female member.