Bernhard Langer played a practice round shortly before the Champions Dinner on Tuesday night.
Andrew Redington/Getty Images
By Michael Bamberger
Wednesday, April 07, 2010

AUGUSTA, Ga. — It's hot here, hot and sunny. Summery. The players are talking about how fast the course might get — greens and fairways both — come Thursday. The grass is growing like crazy. The club can water or not. These are perfect conditions for growing grass, which means perfect conditions for mowing it down. Welcome back to golf.

What a relief. Monday at the Masters was all about the nonsense: the wait for Tiger's press conference, the press conference, then the analysis of the press conference. Tuesday was all about the golf. That is, the golf course, and the players upon it. The golf course is Augusta National, the ultimate magic carpet ride. The golfers upon it are Angel Cabrera, who grew up in Argentina without running water. And Matteo Manassero, of Italy, who got here by winning the British Amateur at the age of 16. And Jack Nicklaus (honorary), whose father handed down to him the legend of Bobby Jones, the visionary behind the club. And Phil Mickelson, who has two green coats in the closet and his eye on a third.

Coming to Augusta is not like going back to the Indy 500 every year, or to the Kentucky Derby. Things change here. Caddies are now allowed to walk the course inside the ropes even if they are not accompanied by their players. They can do as they do at other tournaments, pace distances, roll putts, check hole locations. Billy Payne, Augusta National chairman and agent of (incremental) change, is taking a page from the Clifford Roberts playbook: solicit and consider player opinions. Players want their caddies to have access to the course, and now they do. Dave McNeely, a veteran caddie from Northern Ireland, is carrying for a young player from England, Chris Wood, "who tends to get a wee bit squirrelly at times," the looper said on Tuesday as he tossed make-believe pitch shots from the right side of the ninth green with his player nowhere in sight. That was something he never did before.

Bernhard Langer began his workday with a nine-hole practice round at 4 p.m. and Jack Nicklaus had a 5 p.m. press conference. Pro moves. Why? Because Tuesday night is when the Champions Dinner is held, at one long table on the second floor of the clubhouse. Langer wrapped up at six, and Big Jack a little before that, so they could go straight to dinner without going off-campus first. A rule-of-thumb here is to avoid Washington Road outside the front gates as much as possible. Nicklaus was told that Cabrera would be serving that great Argentinean treat, blood sausage. "I hope he enjoys it," Nicklaus said.

Woods played his practice round early, as he always does. He was off at eight bells, which means he had to make a return trip for the Champions Dinner. Guys don't miss that dinner. Sam Snead came back year after year, even when he was done playing in the tournament. He'd have the Tuesday night dinner, play in the Par-3 tournament on Wednesday, hit the ceremonial opening shot on Thursday, then get in his Cadillac and drive home, stopping on Washington Road, he once told me, "to sell my badge for $5,000." I think he was joking.

One of the nice things about Tuesday was that no one was talking about Tiger's sexting and other off-course activities. That story is so 2009. Jack passed on it several times and so did Mickelson and David Duval, among others. Tiger fatigue has set in. Not Tiger the golfer. Oh, no. People are eager to see the magic again. It's the other stuff that, at least within the cozy confines of Augusta National, seemed to disappear on Tuesday. Chang-won Han talked about staying in the Crow's Nest, the clubhouse attic room reserved for amateurs. He's 18, from Korea, and he's the Asian Amateur Champion. Every year, amateurs talk about the peculiar pleasures of the Crow's Nest. The tab's $20-a-night, or something like that.

No amateur has ever won here and first timers generally have a lot to figure out at Augusta National, the most American of golf courses, but one that requires a keen sense of the lines of attack. Fuzzy Zoeller won in his first time out here in '79, but the chances of a Masters rookie winning seems remote right now, if the course plays super firm and fast. It will just take too much guile, no matter how much looper McNeely can tell his first-timer about how to play the pitch shots from the right side of nine. If you're talking Augusta savvy, you're talking Phil, Tiger, Padraig Harrington. Phil was talking about Fred. Fifty-year-old Fred Couples, playing golf in his tennis shoes and with his long putter, still fitting, pretty much, into the green coat he won back in '92, when his ball stayed on the bank at 12 in the final round. That's the kind of thing people were talking about at Augusta National on Tuesday. How that ball stayed on the bank.

"I think Fred's got an incredible chance to win this week, because he's playing some of the best golf of his career," Mickelson said. "And he's been winning. He's coming into this tournament with championship trophies under his belt, holding those big glass crystal things, as well as huge checks. So having that confidence of winning, I think, brings an added element to his game. His hits the ball as long as anybody out on Tour still and he's putting better than he's ever putted and he knows this golf course as well as anybody. I expect him to have a great week, I really do."

Fred should have a great week, and we should, too. You got to love what Phil was saying. He was talking about Fred, and he was talkink about golf. What a relief, and what a delight.

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