The Masters Chronicles XX: Day One

       AUGUSTA, Ga. – The tournament committee that runs the Masters almost blew it during Thursday’s opening round of the 73rd edition when it turned treacherous Augusta National, which has played like a monster the past two years, into a meek and mild pitch ‘n’ putt.
       With Chad Campbell leading the offensive (let’s call the quiet Texan “early speed”) the birdies and eagles never quit flying even if one of the bigger names, two-time winner Phil Mickelson, failed to catch the red wave.
       There were others who noticed the green light, as Jim Furyk and Hunter Mahan both put up 66s. Furyk did it with four straight birdies beginning at No. 14, while Mahan could have had a share of the lead if not for a bogey on the last hole.      
       Tiger Woods? The four-time Masters champ carded an up-and-down 70, as he failed for the 15th time in as many starts to break 70 here in an opening round. It looked like a lock after Woods made three straight birdies beginning at No. 13 before a bogey on his final hole pushed him back.
       Just one shot better with a 69 was Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, who is gunning for his third straight major championship – “the Paddy Slam.’’ Should he prevail on Sunday, the Irishman could join Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan as the only players to ever win three majors in a row.
        When the day was done, the vast majority of the 96-player field had benefited from the benign conditions and perfect weather, and the fact that several of the tees were moved up significantly. Even past champions like Larry Mize (67), Bernhard Langer (70), Greg Norman (70), all members of the Champions Tour, were able to hang with the leaders.
        Chances are the past two years led to the present, as the tournament has been criticized incessantly over that span for taking away the “roars on the back nine,’’ better known as Tiger-proofing. The extra yardage – Augusta National has been blown up from 6,925 yards in 1998 to 7,445 today — was deemed the culprit, as the season’s first major started to resemble a U.S. Open rather than the colorful tournament fans have adored since 1934.
        Campbell, who at one point was putting for birdie at the 16th hole that would have moved him to 10-under, ended up at 7-under-par 65. But it took a near-miss at No. 16 followed by back-to-back bogeys at Nos. 17 and 18 to keep him from shooting the lowest score (62) in major championship history.
        Then again, CC rider did start his day with five straight birdies, which broke a record of four straight to start the tournament held by Ken Venturi when he was an amateur in 1956.
       “They felt sorry for us, I guess,’’ Campbell said of the tees being moved up and the pins being highly accessible. “But I got off on a roll, and it’s always nice to make a few birdies to start the round, especially five.’’
        Asked what happened coming down the stretch, Campbell said, hey, it’s still Augusta National.
        “I just hit a few bad shots on the last few holes, and if you hit one bad shot here you’re usually behind the eight-ball,’’ he said.
       Mickelson, who could do no better than 73, knows that feeling. But he was all over the flag when he was asked to assess the plethora of red numbers.
       “(The course) was as easy as I’ve ever seen it,’’ said the big left-hander, whose driver got so out of control he managed to hit more bunkers and trees than fairways (six). “The club wants to see some excitement, I guess . . . and we might see that again on Sunday.’’
      Mickelson just hopes he’s playing better than this time around.
      “I drove it terrible, putted terrible, played terrible and just put it in terrible spots all day,’’ he said. “But if you played well, you could shoot a number.’’
       Just ask Greg Norman, who is back after a six-year hiatus and opened with a 70. With his 24-year-old son Gregory on the bag and new wife Chris Evert in the gallery, it could have been even better, but the 54-year-old Great White Shark missed six putts inside eight feet.
        Asked why the crowds have flocked to him this week, Norman broke into his sly smile of yesteryear.
        “Everybody loves me. Nothing wrong with that is there?’’ Norman said with a wink. “I think no matter where I play in the world, I’ve always been connected to the gallery.
         “When I come here, people probably feel for me, some of the things that have happened around here, so they really enjoy seeing me back.’’
          Perhaps an even bigger surprise was the play of 50-year-old Mize, an Augusta native who won the green jacket in 1987 with an amazing chip-in birdie on the second playoff hole (No. 11) to beat Norman and Seve Ballesteros in sudden death.
         Mize’s 67 tied a record for low score among players over 50, an ambiguous milestone of sorts. Jack Nicklaus had held that mark, shooting 67 twice, the last time at age 55.
        Even short hitters like Shingo Katayama of Japan (67), South African Tim Clark (68) and 2003 Masters champ Mike Weir (68) took advantage. In fact, when the day was done 38 players had broken par.
         That translated into a first-round scoring average of 72.26, the lowest first round since 1992, when the average score was 72.06. By comparison, the average score for the last two years in the opening round was 74.18 last year and 76.18 the year before.
         Those are numbers that, added to Campbell’s explosive performance, will make things considerably more difficult the rest of the way. Hey, as we all know by now, you don’t fool Mother Nature and you definitely don’t mess with the Masters.
        Clark, who was the early leader Thursday, is the kind of player who could snap the 49-year-old Par 3 jinx at Augusta National.
        Since its inception in1960, the year Sam Snead captured the pre-tournament event, no player has ever gone on to win the Masters after prevailing in the Par 3. In fact, the last four winners have missed the cut in the big tournament.
        But the part-time Scottsdale resident, who has lived in the Valley for eight years, is a pure putter despite the long shaft and has soft hands around the greens. Plus he hits it longer than it seems possible for his 5-foot-7 frame. All those attributes add up to what you have to do well to win the Masters even if the South African never has won on American soil.
       Clark got to the top of the leader board early by being in the second group off in morning, and birdied all four of the par-5s, which is always a good thing. And here’s another little tidbit that bodes well for Clark, a very nice guy who plays most of his golf when he’s home at Silverleaf in Scottsdale: He finished second here to Phil Mickelson in 2006, and also has tied for 13th here twice.
      “I just played sensible, really: laid up at the par 5s and ended up with four birdies,’’ explained the 33-year-old Clark, who has won three times on the European Tour and twice on the Nationwide Tour.
       “(Finishing second in 2006), obviously gave me a lot of confidence that I can come out on this golf course and compete and play well. Last year I missed the cut by miles (75-76) but I think I was trying too hard, trying to get myself in position.
       “This week my mission has been to have fun and enjoy the fact that I’m here at the Masters. I think that’s helped me stay relaxed, and on these greens you need to be relaxed or you’re struggling.’’
       And the Par 3 jinx, Tim, how big does that loom?
        “I guess it gives you no chance to win the tournament,’’ Clark said with a laugh. “But, no, I’m not too worried about that. Someone’s got to do it some time, so why not me?’’
        How do you know the pros from the pretenders? The true pros struggle with their swing, lose five balls, shoot 77 and keep smiling and laughing and chatting with friends; the pretenders pout.
       Such was the case during the first round with Billy Mayfair.
       “It was a tough day; very frustrating,’’ reported the Scottsdale pro who grew up in Phoenix and starred at Arizona State. “And I wasn’t expecting much, because I haven’t been hitting the ball very good since the Tour Championship last fall.
       “A couple of good rounds here and there, but I have yet to put four together. I guess the good news is that I’m not that far off from breaking through.’’
       There was evidence of both on Thursday as Mayfair’s day started off with a bogey and then three straight balls into the creek at No. 2, where he took a penalty stroke and still managed to par the hole.
       “That was strange situation there at (No.) 2: I hit it in the trees, and then three straight balls into the creek but only one shot (penalty),’’ Mayfair said of the situation, where he had an awkward stance by the creek and his drops kept hitting the pine needs and plopping into the tiny stream, where the balls quickly floated away.
       “I also hit balls into the water at 11 and 13,’’ he said, chuckling at the thought. “By the time I got to 15 (another water hole), I’d hit five balls in the water and was down to my last ‘new’ ball.’’
       But the pressure of having to go to the old balls in his bag finally produced a result.
      “Unbelievably, I birdied 15, 16 and 17 just to shoot 77,’’ he said again, laughing at the thought. “Welcome to the Masters!
      “It was easy today and I kind of let it get away. From here on out, I expect it to get harder and harder. So I kind of let one get away.’’
      Chez Reavie, another former ASU All-American who lives in Scottsdale, said his 75 sounded worse than it really was.
       “I didn’t play that bad,’’ explained Reavie, who got stung with three straight bogeys beginning at the 14th hole, and thus his final margin. “I just missed a couple of shots by a couple of feet, and that was it.’’
       Reavie is playing in his first Masters as a professional after missing the cut here in 2002 as the U.S. Public Links champion. This time around he qualified by winning the Canadian Open last summer.
       “I guess I’m a little bit better player than the first time here, but Augusta National remains a very tough test for everybody,’’ said the 27-year-old Reavie, who has made just four cuts in nine tries this season, his best finish being a tie for 12th in the season-opening Mercedes Championship.
        Asked what he remembered most about his first try at the Masters, Reavie managed a slight grin.
       “I remember them calling my name on the practice green to go to the first tee, and my body went numb,’’ he recalled. “I remember Tom Watson, who I was paired with, coming over and telling me, ‘Don’t worry kid, I still get nervous every time they call my name, too.’
        “I remember thinking, ‘Yeah, sure, you’re Tom Watson, you’ve already won two Masters. I doubt you get nervous when they call your name.’
        “But it was special: I remember everything.’’
        It’s been a whirlwind for Reavie recently, as he got married three weeks ago and still has managed to play in two golf tournaments.
         New Scottsdale resident Angie Watson, the wife of Bubba Watson, followed her husband on his way to a 72. Angie, a former member of the WNBA’s Charlotte franchise who retired after four years due to injures, said she and Bubba “just love Scottsdale.’’
       “When he’s home in Milton (Fla.), Bubba, Boo (Weekley) and Heath (Slocum) are so well-known it’s hard to (keep a low profile). But since we’ve moved to Scottsdale, we can kind of get lost in the crowd out there, and we like that.’’ . . .
         Kathy Wilkes, the former executive director of the Southwest Section, drove up from her home in Jupiter, Fla., to attend the Masters. Wilkes now works in the national office of the PGA of America in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., as national director of employment.
         “Life is good in Florida, even better than I expected,’’ Wilkes said. “Jupiter is beautiful and right by the ocean, plus I’m lucky in that I live right next to the ‘dog beach,’ which is perfect for my dog.’’
       Scalpers have stood side by side this week on Washington Road outside of Augusta National hawking badges to the Masters, once considered the most sought-after ticket in sports.
      In some cases, the scalpers have actually held up a fistful of badges, meaning there are a lot of tickets that are going unsold due to the state of the economy. Apparently the Masters isn’t recession-proof after all.
       In the past the badges have brought up to $5,000 for the week and $2,000 for a single day. But this week you could get one for $2,000 for the week, with the daily badges going from $400 on Thursday, $500 on Friday, and $700 for either Saturday or Sunday, although they might get cheaper as the weekend develops.
      Georgia has a law against scalping, but it’s rarely enforced. But this year, because of the ubiquitous scalping, these hawkers have been going to jail.
      The charge? Disorderly conduct.