AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Augusta National was an equal-opportunity golf course Thursday. After three hot, dry and summer-like days, the National's fairways were rolling firm and fast, just like its greens.
Short-hitters, this was your day. Or it should've been if you wanted to play your way onto the Masters leaderboard.
The National might not play as easy again this week, but if it does it won't play this short. Storms and possibly heavy rains are forecast for Thursday night. That would soften and slow the fairways and turn this Masters back into what it's known as, a Bomber's Paradise. "These are actually some of the shortest clubs I've hit in such a long time," said Tim Clark, a short-hitting South African who once finished second in a Masters. "Normally, it's so wet, I hit hybrid into a hole like the first. Today I hit 6-iron. So it's set up pretty well for me now."
Clark shot a two-under-70 and wasn't the only non-bomber in contention. Former Masters champ Zach Johnson, a short-hitter who won his Masters by laying up on every par 5, posted three birdies on the back nine to shoot 69. David Toms, who won't win any long drive contests at age 46, also shot 70. Jim Furyk was four under through eight holes, before finishing with a 69.
After the storms, temperatures that have been in the mid-80s all week are expected to drop back to normal -- the low- to mid-70s -- for the weekend. That too will make the course play a bit longer.
Thursday, it looked like a track meet. "I'm able to hit shots in there, like at 7, when sometimes I'm hitting 5- or 6-iron off that downslope and it's impossible for me to keep it on the green," said Clark. "Today it was a 6-iron but I was on the flat so it was okay. The way the course is now, it is going to bring in the shorter hitters, so it's going to be a mix of players."
When Clark finished second in 2006, after holing out from the bunker at the 72nd, the course wasn't playing fast. "It was wet as could be that year," Clark said. Then, laughing, he added, "I was a good player back then, though."
The daunting length and the need for power at Augusta had Furyk turning into a right-handed version of Phil Mickelson. Furyk tinkered with the concept of bringing two drivers, as Phil did a few years ago. "I thought I could play two drivers, one I could hit a little shorter and straighter and one that I could really rip and bomb a long way," said Furyk, 42 who has never ranked among the top 30 in driving distance in 16 previous Masters appearances. "What I ended up with was one driver right in the middle of those two. I've got a little bit more distance than what I was hitting last week, but it's straight as well. Two drivers was a good idea, I think, I just never got comfortable with the longer one. It was going left."
Furyk's day improved when he holed "a snake of a putt," he said, of some 70 feet for birdie at the third hole. That fortunate stroke calmed him down, then he stuck an approach to a foot for birdie at the sixth, made a ten-footer for birdie at the seventh and after semi-flubbing a chip at the eighth, he rolled in a 25-footer for a third straight birdie.
Four-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champ Nathan Smith from the greater Pittsburgh area is not known for his length off the tee, either. He struggled with his feel on the greens more than distance, however. He was in the first group off the tee after Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit the ceremonial opening tee shots and had to adjust to some different conditions. "It was 80 degrees all week and the ball was running out," Smith said. "This morning as the first ones out, there was dew and fog. It was different. The greens were soft in some spots and firm in others."
Smith, three-over par through five holes, steadied himself and shot 77, but he was held without a birdie. Afterwards, he felt he should have have putted a bit longer while warming up, but with The Big Three on the first tee, that wasn't an option. "I was attempting to hit putts on the putting green but I don't think I hit any," Smith joked. "I was just watching them, soaking it in. It was special. I'm glad I did that. I've always wanted to do that. I've always heard the roars from over on the range. It was special to be there to see that and get a ringside seat."
Toms highlighted his day with an eagle at the par-5 15th. It was his first eagle there in 15 Masters and only his second anywhere on the course. He eagled the par-5 13th hole once. Toms ranked 62nd in driving distance in last year's Masters, 46th in 2011. "Yeah, that was one of the few times I've been able to go for that green in recent years," Toms said of his eagle. "I guess I made the most of it. I hit a 3-hybrid there. I hit it just over the back of the green and putted it in from the fringe. It was nice to pick up an extra shot." The short-hitters needed all the help they could get. "Hopefully, it doesn't rain too much," Clark said. "But what can you do?" Cash in on the favorable conditions while you can and hope for the best. And, oh yeah, bring raingear.