Sunday check-in

Wednesday April 4th, 2007
Tiger Woods gets some early practice in on Sunday at Augusta National.
Fred Vuich/SI

On Sunday, the day Morgan Pressel won in the California desert and Adam Scott won in Houston, Tiger Woods played a leisurely nine holes at Augusta National. He had no playing partners, and almost nobody was watching. Steve Williams carried the bag, and Hank Haney, Tiger's swing coach, carried an umbrella he did not need. When Woods came off the 9th green, there was a column of sweat between the shoulder blades of his shirt, and his shoes were speckled with green dust, spring pollen off the dogwoods. It was only Sunday, the Sunday before Masters Sunday, and the course was already hard and dry — just the way the Augusta bosses want it.

Last week in Augusta — maybe Al Gore was noting this too — the days felt more like summer than spring, and the golf-centric Augusta forecast for this week was predicting four dry days for the tournament. There's never been a dry year to truly access the total impact of all the course changes in the Hootie years: growing rough, planting trees, moving tees. The bright-red sign, weather warning, with two gray clouds split by a yellow thunderbolt, has been a regular presence on the scoreboards since 2002. There has been a drenching rain every year. This could be the April when we finally see the course as William (Hootie) Johnson and his architect, Tom Fazio, intended it. On Sunday, the Sunday before Masters Sunday, you could land a cut four-iron in front of the 1st green and watch it trickle off the back. Try making par from there.

Fast and firm — you may remember parched Hoylake at the British Open that Woods won last July — diminishes the importance of the driver and accentuates the role of distance control, lag putting, craftiness. As Tiger leads in those categories too, he should still be your man. But dry is good for Chris DiMarco, Luke Donald, Tom Watson and Mike Weir, among others. Larry Mize lives. The National, of course, will be green. It's Augusta, birthplace of American Green. On your HDTV it'll be especially green. But the players' tees won't show any dirt when they pull them back out. It's close to bone dry underneath the green paint. The main sound on Sunday came from subterranean pumps sucking moisture out of the fairways.

The Sunday before Masters Sunday is a peculiar, pleasant hybrid of a day at Augusta National. There are no roars spreading across the grounds, not even polite applause. Phil Mickelson made a 1 on 16, and who saw it? No reporters, no cameras, no spectators. Until last week Tiger had never played on the Sunday before Masters Sunday, a day when the course is open to members, their guests and tournament contestants and closed to spectators.

A woman in a straw hat was playing a few holes ahead of Tiger. On Sunday, 50 or so Masters competitors played. Some — Woods, Ernie Els and Charles Howell among them — played as singletons. Others, including Davis Love III and Gary Player, played with amateur friends. Some played with countrymen (Jose Maria Olazabal and Miguel Angel Jimenez; Brett Wetterich and Chad Campbell). Nobody was grinding. Love, as is his practice-round custom, chit-chatted his way around with his friend Peter Broome, a Titleist executive. The changes at 11 (wider fairway, fewer trees)? Unnoticed by Love's group. Well, maybe one guy was grinding. Tiger played two shots from the fairway bunker on one.

Sunday, by anecdotal evidence, was slightly busier than usual, but the six days before it were quieter. When the Tour stop was in Atlanta the week before the Masters, players would come over on Monday and Tuesday. Nobody, of course, commuted from Houston. Phil Mickelson, who last year won in Atlanta before winning the Masters, arrived at Augusta last Thursday, doing as much hanging out as anything else. He loves the place. With Tiger, it's harder to tell.

The Sunday before Masters Sunday is not about quotes, Golf Channel analysis, or "what-did-you-hit-into-13?" locker-room conversation. It's a chance to breathe. A reporter from The Augusta Chronicle ran after Tiger and asked if this year marked the first time he had played on the Sunday before. Yes, Tiger said. What did he like about it? "The peace and quiet," Tiger replied. What more needs to be said?

The Chronicle publishes its massive Masters preview section on the Sunday before Masters Sunday, with hundreds and hundreds of column inches devoted this year to Tiger; to Billy Payne, the new Augusta National chairman; to Mickelson, the defending champion; to Howell and Vaughn Taylor, Augusta homeboys-and on and on it goes. Breakfast can turn easily into lunch by the time you're done turning those pages.

A lady was selling the Chronicle on Washington Road on Sunday, but there were no Richmond County sheriffs patrolling the famous boulevard that fronts the National. Within the gates, things were mellow too. The gleaming, unadorned white golf bag of one Severiano Ballesteros, 50 and playing this year, stood on the sidewalk outside the bag room for half an hour, protected only by the four letters on its side, seve. Who would touch Seve's bag? Nobody who was there on Sunday.

Dean Wilson, a Masters rookie, shopped in the pro shop. Rory Sabbatini sat on a wood slab of a bench beside the practice putting green and enjoyed a smoke. The club caddies, and there were scores of them on the course, worked their loops with green satchels against their chests, the sacks filled with green divot mix.

Small packs of kids, in groups of six and eight, were being trained in the fine art of trash collection. A snack-and-beverage cart, resort-course style, was piled high with those orange crackers with the peanut butter on them, protected by plastic wrappers that even Gary Player, a 71-year-old muscle man, struggled to open. A parade of carts, carrying hoses and members' jackets and pine needles, crisscrossed the grounds, pedal to the metal, with no fans to worry about. Robins and cardinals ruled the air, and there was no blimp.

Love, a veteran of 17 Masters, was remembering the course from the mid-'80s, when he could carry the fairway bunker on 18 with a wooden driver. Camilo Villegas, another Masters rookie, was remembering the course from a much softer day in mid-March, when he was sharing the place with Jack Nicklaus and Donald Trump and Hootie Johnson.

Villegas's name was on the giant scoreboard beside the 1st fairway, his Colombian flag among the 18 — nice number — flying above the scoreboard. Beneath the board was a little hut, big as a breadbasket and in the shape of a Monopoly house, waiting for pairing sheets, its green paint so fresh you could smell the oil. The board, with 97 names on it, began with Robert Allenby (Australia) and Stephen Ames (Canada) and concluded with Y.E. Yang (South Korea) and Fuzzy Zoeller (Floyds Knobs, Ind.).

All the boxes, hundreds and hundreds of them, were empty. No green numbers, no red numbers, nothing but white space. By the end of Masters Sunday, all that will be different. The scoreboard will be a sea of green, dappled with very little red, for those who can better 288 for 72 holes.

How many will break par? If Haney's umbrella stays in its sheath and the flags atop the scoreboard flap in the swirly April breeze and the greens get as dry as Greg Norman's throat when he was gagging it away to Nick Faldo 11 years ago, probably darned few. The Sunday before the real Sunday, all you could do was guess.

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