The Art of the Practice Round

The Art of the Practice Round

Gary Player during a practice round Monday. He is playing in his 50th Masters this week.
Fred Vuich/SI

AUGUSTA, Ga., April 2 — Nick Faldo was playing a Monday practice round for the 1996 Masters when the awful truth hit him like a 7-iron between the windshield wipers of his Porsche: He had absolutely no idea what he was doing.

"He was totally lost," David Leadbetter said outside the locker room at Augusta on Monday. "I mean, he was hitting it very, very poorly. Just no confidence at all."

Faldo and Leadbetter decided to go in a new direction: Faldo would think less about technique, and instead play each shot on the driving range as if he were on the course. He improved as the week went on, and six days after he couldn't hit it out of his shadow, Faldo shot 67 to overtake Greg Norman and win his third Masters.

Leadbetter is quick to point out that Faldo's 180-degree pivot is the exception to the rule: If you don't have it when you show up to the course, you're not going to find it there, especially not the week of a major.

In the days before an important tournament, players are doing far more than simply looking for a key move that will fetch the big cardboard check. They are toeing the line between playing enough and too much; playing well and too well; focusing on their games and soaking up the technique and strategy of their playing partners.

Padraig Harrington wasn't practicing at all on Monday morning; he was having a tooth worked on at the dentist. But he did go out in the evening and was one of the last players on the course.

Phil Mickelson, who's been at Augusta since last week, skipped the crowded practice round on Monday, the first day the public was allowed on the course, but will play 18 holes early Tuesday with U.S. Mid-Amateur Champion Dave Womack, Arron Oberholser (who finished 14th in the 2006 Masters) and Chris DiMarco (2nd in 2005).

"Phil wants to go at 8, so I told DiMarco we better be there at 7:45 waiting," Oberholser said. "I've learned a lot from [Mickelson], especially around this place. How the greens break, certain quirky putts. He's told me to be very patient, that the one thing he learned that helped him win in 2004 was that 5 is a good score on the par 5s when you're out of position. If there's a shadow of a doubt about going for the green in two, lay it up, even if you wedge it in there to 20 feet."

An hour after the Mickelson group tees off Tuesday, a foursome consisting of the South Africans Tim Clark, Ernie Els, Trevor Immelman and three-time Masters champion Gary Player will do the same.

"Trevor just texted me and said do I want to play," Clark said. "I got lucky to get an invite. Gary knows as much about this course as anyone."


Player will be teeing off in his 50th Masters, tying Arnold Palmer's record. The spry 71-year-old relished being in the spotlight Monday during a lengthy press conference in which he said, among other things, "I'm going to give Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods a dead tie."

While Clark will limit his practice rounds to 18 holes, as he did last year, Geoff Ogilvy will do no such thing. At his press conference Monday he professed to be every bit as much a wide-eyed fan of Augusta as the spectators.

"I'd rather get my practice and enjoy it out on the golf course," Ogilvy said. "I'll play 18 every day, probably."

A large sign behind Augusta's 18th green tells fans what the pairings are, and when the groups have teed off, but not what they're up to. Some pros are on the lookout for a good omen as much as a good swing thought.

Todd Hamilton was getting a last look at Troon on the Wednesday before he won the 2004 British Open when he gazed up at the giant yellow scoreboard above the 18th green and saw his name at the very top, tied for the lead, as it were, with Darren Clarke. He's still got a picture of it.

On Tuesday before winning the 2005 Tour Championship, Bart Bryant was playing a pro-am round when his caddie, Bob Chaney, noticed Bryant wasn't sweeping in his short putts, even kick-in birdies, unless his team needed him to.

"I was keeping count," Chaney said, "and if he had putted everything in he'd have shot 59."

And no one wants to shoot 59 in a practice round, lest he be doomed to a string of pars and bogeys when it counts.

"Three or four under is okay," said Bryant, who spent last week working with his instructor, Brian Mogg, at home in Orlando. "But anything beyond that is bad karma."

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