I’ve seen a lot of great shots and great rounds at Augusta. In 1978, I closed in 30 and shot 64 to win the Masters by one. But that doesn’t compare to what Tianlang Guan is doing at the age of 14. Mark my words: We are witnessing the most historic moment golf has experienced in my lifetime. And giving him the slow-play penalty on Friday is one of the saddest things I’ve seen in golf. When I heard, I prayed that he would make the cut. I am thrilled he did, because having him play the weekend will do miracles for the game. Golf’s popularity is as low as it’s ever been. Fewer and fewer people are playing the game. This will encourage young boys and girls around the world to play the game. Imagine it! Everyone will benefit -- courses, manufacturers, some day even fans.
Now, you cannot criticize the rule. It’s in the book for a reason. I believe the officials when they say Guan broke it. But you’ve got to be consistent. If you had a stopwatch, you could time many players in the last 20 years who have been well over their time but have not been penalized. Slow-playing tournament leaders have not been penalized. If the rule is applied arbitrarily, it is meaningless. The tragedy is that this could cause a stir. Imagine what the Chinese are going to think?
Enough about the penalty, though. I don’t want to diminish the great golf that’s being played. The leaderboard is spectacular. It’s wonderful to see the seasoned pros playing so well. Like Freddie Couples, who I think has the best swing in the field. Bernhard Langer is making a good showing. These Champions Tour players are so much better than the press and the fans understand. The quality of play is only a fraction below the PGA Tour. Maybe more people will realize that now.
Plenty of other veterans are also playing remarkably well. Jim Furyk is up there. He recovered nicely, even though he made a mess of 15. And Angel Cabrera had an electric finish to his round. Five birdies on the back nine! Some guys have Augusta in their blood.
Experience was so important today, because Augusta in the morning was a very different course than Augusta in the afternoon. It was a much tougher course in the morning. Think of it: When Novak Djokavic is playing Roger Federer, it could be windy in the morning or calm in the afternoon -- it doesn’t matter. They are playing against each other in the same conditions. Today, the guys who teed off early got a bit of rain, a bit of wind. They were playing their entire round off of wet grass. It’s hard to spin it off of wet grass, so your ball jumps when you’re hitting into greens. Now, look at the afternoon. The sun comes out. The course dries up and gets shorter. You can spin the ball and fire at the flag, and the green will hold the shot. When the pins are tucked in the corners, it makes all the difference in the world. The course is easier, but both scores count the same. That’s what makes tournament golf so damn tough.
And if you look at the second-round pin placements, you can tell that the members wanted the course to play tough. They were obviously upset that 32 guys shot under par on Thursday. Chairmen of the club have told me that they want the winning score around 280. In my experience, they are able to program that pretty well -- better than any other place we play. It’s like they can turn the course on and off using the pins and the turf. I expect the players will find some tough conditions over the weekend.
I also expect the leaders are going to have to keep their eyes on Tiger Woods. I fancied Tiger to win it at the beginning of the week, and I still do. He looks as focused as I’ve ever seen him. We all know what that Tiger is capable of.
By Friday night, it’s too late to change. You’ve got to stick to your plan. Some guys like to go out and have a couple of drinks. I liked to be on my own. A bit of music, an early dinner and a hot bath followed by a cold one. I liked to get my mind off of my game for a while and then just go play the next day. That feeling that the great ones have -- knowing when to attack -- you can’t find that on Friday night. It’s an instinct, a gift. You either have it or you don’t. We’ll know soon enough who does. GARY PLAYER MASTERS DIARY: How I Out-Drove Jack GARY PLAYER MASTERS DIARY: What Really Happens at Champions Dinner GARY PLAYER MASTERS DIARY: The World's Greatest Driving Range GARY PLAYER MASTERS DIARY: Coming to Augusta Is Like Coming Home Photo: John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated