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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
The fabled Masters teed off at Augusta today and the story lines run deep this year. Naturally, Tiger's comeback from his extensive reconstructive knee surgery is the leader-board focus, but it's an exciting year for the Masters in other regards. Australia's Greg Norman, he of three heartbreak runner-up losses in Augusta, will be back on the azalea-lined fairways that have haunted him since he first played there some 30 years ago. In '86, The Shark needed a final birdie to take the tournament. His bogie was like a poison dart to the heart. In '87, Norman had it made against Larry Mize in sudden-death but Norman's spirit was again broken when Mize made a miraculous pitch-in at Amen Corner. Then came the agony of 1996 when Norman went into the final round with a commanding six-stroke lead, only to fade, then crumble and eventually lose to Nick Faldo. Norman is 54 years old now, meaning we can't possibly consider him a contender. Yet his 3rd place finish at the British Open last summer surely commands respect. Even if he doesn't win the coveted green jacket, The Shark will draw a crowd if his name is anywhere among the elite of the leader board.
Phil Mickelson, with two wins under his belt already this season, is primed to tee off his #2 in the world status directly against the #1, Tiger.
Of course, the Augusta National Golf Club course is, as always, as much a star as the competing players. And the course is taking some hard knocks as of late. The Masters was originally designed, the vision dating back to 1933, as a shot-maker's tournament, whereas the U.S. Open has traditionally been all about par golf. Well, recent changes to Augusta, three renovations in just the last six years, have made it more of a par scenario and many of us miss the birdie and eagle dramas that used to fire up those last nine holes toward the final walk up the 18th.
Most golf historians concur that the most thrilling two hours the sport has ever seen were those last nine holes in 1986, when Jack Nicklaus roared up the final nine in a stunning six-under-par 30 and kept the galleries roaring all afternoon as well. Those same golf experts say those days at the Masters are gone. The course is now a long, long 7,445 yards, a change instigated because Tiger's strength and clobbering length allowed him to dominate in winning four jackets in his early days there. They actually refer to the course changes as “Tiger-proofing” but, in fact, what they've done is strip the shot-makers from the birdies that excite the crowds.
Trevor Immelman's Masters victory last year was a snooze of a 75-stroke round. Those final-hole galleries less than inspired as he quietly worked his pars and even bogies.
Now keep in mind that by January 1, 2010, new equipment rules are going make shot-making even more rare on the men's tour. Elite players will be mandated to use clubs with smaller and shallower grooves on the face. That will translate into less control in firing out of the rough. With the 2010 Masters being the first Major to require the new club faces, there is no doubt that scores will be higher than ever in Augusta.
As for this year, there's also an aura of sadness at the Masters. At the traditional Champions Dinner, a letter was read from the great Seve Ballesteros who is suffering with malignant brain cancer. Ballesteros was the youngest, 23, to win the Masters in 1980, and then he won it again in '83. The details of his letter have been guarded by the Champions present the other night, but word has it there wasn't a dry eye in the room.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
Banner image: Seve Ballesteros, Captain of The European Team, plays a tee shot during the Pro-Am for the Seve Trophy 2007 at the Heritage Golf and Country Club on September 26, 2007 in Killenard, Ireland. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images