AUGUSTA, Ga. It was a dark and stormy night.
\nYes, that line was stolen from would-be author Snoopy of "Peanuts," but it really was dark and stormy last night. Winds howled, branches flew and rain fell. When defending champion Phil Mickelson drove down Magnolia Lane he noticed that one of the trees lining the famed entrance to Augusta National had been uprooted by the storm.
\n"It's disappointing that a tree that's been there for so many decades was uprooted last night," Mickelson said. "I was surprised that it wasn't replaced in the first half hour. I think Chairman Payne must have been sleeping. I guess that drive has 60 magnolia trees now instead of 61."
\nThe damage wasn't limited to Magnolia Lane. Several trees were downed on the course, including one on the 15th hole and another near the sixth green. By morning workers could be seen in the trees cutting down broken branches. The storm announced itself in the middle of the night with a startlingly loud thunderclap that one of my colleagues described as sounding like "a lightning bolt splitting a Volkswagen in half." That's why he's an award-winning writer.
\nYou get the idea. It was stormy.
Did I mention it was also dark? Augusta National delayed opening its gates until 8:45 a.m. to allow for drying and cleanup. It was chilly, damp and breezy early Tuesday until the sun broke through in mid-morning. The skies cleared and something became obvious.
Phil was on the grounds. Tiger Woods was there. Martin Kaymer and Louis Oosthuizen were too. They were all here.
That means the Masters is here. Finally.
It's a long and winding road from glory's last shot, the PGA Championship last August, to the Masters this week. It a long eight months for a golfer, especially if you live in the Midwest or the Northeast, where waiting for the Masters is the same as waiting for spring in Pittsburgh.
Our long, dark winter is over. Spring is here. Azaleas and dogwood blossoms are in bloom, whether it's nature's doing or the wonderful world of chemicals. And the Masters starts Thursday. We are soooo ready.
This week, it's all about Tiger and Phil, the same as it's been for the last dozen years. Other champions rise and fall, but Tiger and Phil hold our interest. They endure. They have become as much identified with Augusta National as Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer before them. So it came as no surprise that when the British Open champ, Louis Oosthuizen, stopped by the press center Tuesday morning, he was greeted by a media throng of fewer than a dozen. Nothing against him, but the British media had already talked to Lee Westwood and rushed off to write their stories so they could be ready to interview Tiger and Phil a few hours later. Every other interview subject, from Oosthuizen to the legendary Gary Player, was the undercard.
That doesn't mean the other interviews aren't informative; it just means that they will be ignored by the mainstream media in favor of the top cats, Tiger and Phil. Martin Kaymer, the No. 1-ranked player in the world, was met by only 30 or so writers. At least that many people were just hanging out in the interview room before it was announced that Woods was on his way in.
Here's what you need to know about Tiger and Phil. They feel ready. Mickelson, obviously, even more so since he won the Shell Houston Open last week with a short game that looked Augusta-ready. "It was a big confidence booster, I would say, because I felt like that golf was in me this year but I haven't been getting it out," Mickelson said. "I haven't had the same mental focus throughout the round that I expect, and I was able to do it very effectively last weekend."
Mickelson said he's going to put a second driver in the bag, one with a longer shaft and less loft that he can hit about 20 yards farther. Based on forecasts for temperatures in the 80s on the weekend, Mickelson doesn't expect he'll need to hit more than 4-iron on any of the par 3s, so he can leave out his 3-iron or hybrid. Due to Tuesday's windy conditions, he opted not to play a practice round. He'll do that Wednesday instead, when he had originally planned to rest.
His psoriatic arthritis, he said, is under control. "I've been able to resume all of my normal activities," he said. "I've been able to work out the same, practice the same. So there's no reason I shouldn't be able to perform the same as well."
A healthy Phil with momentum coming off a win? There's the No. 1 draft pick for your Masters pool, people. The second choice? Well, there was something about Tiger an underlying, unshakable self-confidence. He was asked if he really believed he could win here this week. "Mm-hmmm," he said, nodding. Then the writer asked, "Why?" That question caused laughter to break out and even made Woods flash a big grin. "Everything," Tiger answered.
Later, on a similar question, Tiger explained, "I believe in myself. There's nothing wrong with believing in myself. I hope you guys feel the same way about yourselves. That's the whole idea, that you can always become better."
Have we seen the best of Tiger Woods, he was asked. "No," he answered matter-of-factly.
We haven't seen a confident Tiger Woods for a while. Whether his game is ready or not, Tiger is getting his swagger back. That should be a sobering thought for his competition. On the Tuesday before the Masters, that should be a very exciting thought for the fans.
One other difference between Tiger and Phil: When it comes to golf, Tiger is not a romantic. Phil talked about the feeling he gets every year driving down Magnolia Lane and perhaps the real reason he loves the course so much the emphasis on the long ball.
"The thing about Augusta is that length is a big factor here," he said. "So this week is the one week where I swing the absolute hardest. I've been working out for it. I saw a back specialist last night. I've been working to make sure my back is strong enough to withstand the rotational speed that I'm going to apply this week because I believe it's a big advantage if you can move it out there."
The sight of Magnolia Lane, the tree-lined drive to the clubhouse, doesn't make Tiger's heart flutter. "Driving down Magnolia Lane is just looking at some trees, really," Tiger said with a laugh. "It's getting out here on the range or getting to the first tee or walking under the tree to get to the first tee. That's what really gets me fired up."
Phil embraces the romance, aura and lore of the Masters. Tiger sees it more as a battleground specifically, his battleground. "Every year I come here, I'm trying to get myself to the back nine on Sunday," he said. "There's 63 holes to get yourself to the back nine. It's so much work. I just want to be a part of that action and let the chips fall where they may. I just need to be part of that action."
There will be action. There will also be scenery. Oosthuizen explained why he watched the Masters growing up in South Africa, even as he never watched any other televised golf. "You know, everything is so beautiful," he said.
We all do. Spring, or at least a reasonable facsimile of it, is here, with a forecast that calls for a 100-percent chance of gorgeous azaleas, wisterias, lush greenery, cathedrals of pines, roars and echoes of roars, golden sunlight and pages of golf history about to be written.
An official tournament press release says Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus will serve as honorary starters at 7:40 a.m. Thursday morning. Mickelson has a late tee time (1:48 PM) while Tiger goes mid-morning, at 10:41 a.m. Pull up a chair. The 75th Masters Tournament has arrived. The world seems a little brighter. \n