An Early Peek at Augusta

Phil Mickelson with his coach, Rick Smith, at Augusta National on the Sunday before the Masters.
Fred Vuich/SI

AUGUSTA, Ga., April 1 — It didn't take long for Phil Mickelson to put his stamp on the 2007 Masters.

The two-time winner and defending champion, who has not finished out of the top 10 at Augusta since 1998, aced the 170-yard 16th hole while playing a practice round with the U.S. Amateur champion, Richard Ramsay, on Sunday.

The hole-in-one elicited few cheers because the fans, or "patrons," are not allowed on the course until Monday, and Mickelson joked afterward about the possibility of receiving the large crystal bowl that goes to a player who makes a hole-in-one in the actual competition. (Not happening.)

He was one of an estimated 50 to 60 players who took advantage of the opportunity to play one of the world's most storied courses before the arrival of cameras, autograph hounds and, with only a few exceptions, media.

A light rain fell in the late afternoon, a reminder that the Masters has not been played without a rain delay since 1997. It was the first rain to fall here in more than two weeks and was a welcome arrival, as it rinsed the air of pollen. Now if it can just stay away later in the week. One early forecast showed a slim chance of rain Monday through Wednesday but none at all after that.

Players have come to expect rain at Augusta, but many had already left the course by the time it fell. Four-time Masters champion Tiger Woods played Sunday, as did Ernie Els, a runner-up in 2000 and 2004. First-timer Camilo Villegas took a look at the course, as did old-timer Gary Player, who will make his 50th Masters start this week.

That will tie the number of starts by Arnold Palmer, who has reportedly warmed to the club's invitation to become an honorary starter, something the Masters hasn't had for five years.

Mickelson seems to require no one's help getting revved up for Augusta. His ace on Sunday came a year after he lapped the field by 13 strokes at the 2006 BellSouth Classic, a pre-Masters warm-up event that has been moved to May this year. As for the real warm-up tournament, Adam Scott won the Shell Houston Open on Sunday, which only made sense since he was the highest-ranked player who bothered to show up.

Even that wave of momentum, however, may not be enough against Mickelson and Woods, who have taken turns winning the green jacket in five of the last six years and show no signs of letting up.

After fighting his swing on the back nine on Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill last month, Woods self-corrected on the driving range and then went back to beating everyone at the WGC-CA Championship at Doral two weeks ago.

That's where Mickelson was done in by a howling wind that led to back-to-back double-bogeys in the opening round. With no chance to win, he quietly shot a 69 on Sunday, one of the best rounds of the day.

The tie for 23rd place at Doral won't be mentioned when Mickelson is inducted into the Hall of Fame someday, and neither will his ace Sunday, but both provided momentum.

You can bet both Mickelson and Woods will have a chance to win on Sunday.

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