PGA Tour Confidential: 2009 Masters Preview

PGA Tour Confidential: 2009 Masters Preview

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New trees and the additional length have taken much of the excitement out of the Masters.
Augusta National Golf Club/AP

NATIONAL DEFENSE
Van Sickle: Do you guys think Augusta
National has finally been Tiger-proofed,
based on the difficult conditions the last
two years and mildly surprising winners
Zach Johnson and Trevor Immelman?

Hack: It’s not Tiger-proofed, it’s excitement-proofed.
Guys like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold
Palmer and Tom Watson are pretty
careful about criticizing the Masters, but
even they are making more noise than they
used to about the course. They don’t like it
very much. It’s become a point A to point B
golf course. It’s boring.

Anonymous Pro: The course has
played so long the last few years, even the
long hitters can’t take advantage of the
par-5s, which Tiger and Phil always used
to do. When that happens, it becomes more
of a test from 100 yards. The par-3s are
brutal, and everybody lays up on the par-5s,
so it’s the guy who wedges it the best and
putts the best who wins. That’s not what
built the legends of the Masters.

Van Sickle: The course was so difficult
the last two years, it was an equalizer.
You made birdies as much by accident
as by skill.

Bamberger: The new Augusta National
works against Tiger because there’s less of
an intimidation factor. Like Nicklaus or
Palmer in their days, Tiger can put up a
31 on the back nine on Sunday afternoon
when nobody else can. When 31 isn’t in
the cards, that works against him.

Van Sickle: By intimidation, you mean
the roars that Tiger or Jack create by shooting
31 on the back nine?

Bamberger: Right.

Shipnuck: I agree with Michael, the
Masters is more of a defensive tournament
now. It’s more difficult for Tiger to
separate himself. It’s become boring the
first three rounds. They want to protect
par at the outset, then they try to make
the course more scorable on Sunday, but
it’s too late. They’ve already sucked the
life out of the tournament.

Garrity: The more they restore number
7 to the way it used to be, which was
just a great short par-4, the better I’ll
like it. They turned that into a hole at
Firestone.

Bamberger: Geoff Ogilvy made a similar
point about the 14th, that the hole was
tougher when it was shorter because you
had to play it as a dogleg. Now it simply
plays as a straightaway hole with a sloping
fairway.

Shipnuck: Apparently they’ve extended
the tee box way up on number 7 so they
can play it 40 to 50 yards shorter if they
want. Maybe that’s their plan — make the
tee boxes longer so they can adjust the
lengths of the holes.

Van Sickle: Alan said it earlier: They’re
trying to protect par. When did the green
jackets turn into blue jackets? The USGA
blue coats used to be the only ones worried
about anyone shooting 275 and embarrassing
Shinnecock or Winged Foot. When
Tiger shot the record in ’97, Masters officials
only cared about how he did it — by
hitting driver-wedge on just about every
hole, which was alarming. These days it
would embarrass Hootie Johnson, the former
chairman, if all the trees he planted
got ripped out, but Billy Payne ought to
consider it.

Hack: One tree at a time, baby. One tree
at a time.

Shipnuck: It all comes down to two
holes, 13 and 15. Those holes define excitement
at the Masters, and they’re automatic
layups for a lot of guys. Move up
the tees and bring back eagles on those
holes, which still would give up bogeys
and doubles. Take out the new trees, lose
the rough, speed up the fairways and turn
the course into a racetrack. Bobby Jones
had a vision of it as a links in a parkland
setting.

Bamberger: Not even a parkland setting,
Alan. In the ’80s when you stepped
out of the clubhouse, you felt as if you
were looking at a huge playing field, not
like it is now. I’ve heard Ben Crenshaw
say that you don’t get that unique feeling
anymore that this is a strange, special
course. Those corridors of trees are like
Oak Hill or Winged Foot.

THE PADDY SLAM
Van Sickle: We’ve got a guy going for
three straight major victories, and nobody
is talking about him. It’s even crazier
that Padraig Harrington has won two
majors in a row and isn’t ranked No. 2
in the world.

Anonymous Pro: Padraig always
comes in under the radar. There’s nothing
flashy about his game. Royal Birkdale
and Oakland Hills were both kind of survival
of the fittest. Augusta requires a short
game unlike anywhere else, and Padraig
doesn’t hit a lot of flops and pitches and
isn’t as imaginative around the greens as
Tiger and Phil. Padraig looks very rigid
in his technique; he simply doesn’t look
like a feel player to me, and feel players
win at Augusta.

Shipnuck: When Phil has a train wreck
and plays bad, it’s fun. It’s part of his
charm. Harrington is just so relentlessly
steady. He’ll go to Augusta with a very
low profile, which suits him fine. There’s
nothing not to like about him, but Padraig
has never captured the imagination of
the American public.

Garrity: The problem is, he won his two
majors in a row in only one month. And
while Tiger was absent.

Hack: Fair or unfair, it’s like the Houston
Rockets winning back-to-back NBA titles
while Michael Jordan was retired. Those
trophies look the same on Padraig’s mantel,
but in the public’s eye maybe it wasn’t the
same because Tiger was missing.

Shipnuck: I’ve been saying for a long
time that Harrington is the Hakeem
Olajuwon of golf.

Van Sickle: If you want to win two majors
and stay anonymous in the U.S., you
win the British Open and the PGA. Nobody
notices. You have to win the tournaments
the American public watches, and that
means the Masters and the U.S. Open. If
Padraig wins this Masters, for the rest of
his life he won’t be off the radar.

PHIL HARMONIC
Hack: I wouldn’t have touched Phil
Mickelson two months ago, but the way
he won in Los Angeles and Doral, he has
to be the favorite for Augusta. I’d ride
that horse.

Shipnuck: Phil is back, definitely. He
has that look about him. The guy has
been kind of lost since Winged Foot [in
2006], but for three years there he was
in contention in just about every major.
He’s the one guy who has the game, the
force and the personality. He’s the only
bona fide rival for Tiger out there, not
Anthony Kim or Rory McIlroy or Ryo
Ishikawa or some other young gun. Look,
Phil has a three- to five-year window. He
knows that, we all know that. He’s doing
everything he can to get back to where
he was and have a triumphant final act
to his career. He is energized.

Bamberger: The thing that had his
caddie, Jim Mackay, so excited was that
approach shot into Doral’s last hole on
Sunday. Phil couldn’t hit his bread-and-butter
draw in there. He played a fade
into a back-left pin, a shot that Butch
Harmon has wanted him to use, and
he executed it beautifully. As Jim said,
that’s a shot he needs at Augusta. To
pull that off under the gun is a huge
boost for confidence.

Anonymous Pro: Phil’s iron play
and putting are fantastic, but he’s still
driving it poorly. All the best drives I
saw him hit at Doral were with three-woods.
I’m surprised that Butch hasn’t
tightened up Phil’s driver backswing.
It’s loose, and so is his lower body,
which is why he’s driving it erratically.
Phil’s problem is he’s enamored with
distance. He doesn’t realize that taking
10 yards off his tee ball would help
him so much.

Van Sickle: It’s true. He digs the long
ball.

Anonymous Pro: I saw Phil pound
a big, looping high draw off the 12th
tee at Doral. He can hit it 330 with
a cut, so why try to hit it 350 with a
draw? The best drivers hit the ball one
way — either they cut it or hit it straight.
Like Tiger. If Tiger has to draw it, he
hits his three-wood. Being aggressive is
Phil’s nature. You can’t change that. The
driver is still the weak link in his bag,
but there’s plenty of room at Augusta
even with the trees. And 36 wins? The
guy is phenomenal.

AUSSIE RULES
Van Sickle: It’s interesting how Geoff
Ogilvy looks like one of the two or three
best players in the world whenever he
wins.

Bamberger: Inasmuch as he played
one of the most difficult courses in
the history of the U.S. Open so well at
Winged Foot, I don’t see how he can’t
be considered one of the favorites at
the Masters.

Shipnuck: He’s had some crazy blowups
at Augusta — two balls into the pond
at 15 and a 9 in ’07. Hopefully, he’s learned
from that.

Bamberger: I think he did that out of
respect for Norman.

Anonymous Pro: Geoff makes it
look so easy. He hits his irons super
high, he’s a great driver of the ball and
a terrific putter. It’s a great combination.
Plus, he seems so nonchalant. He
looks as if he can’t decide whether to
order a turkey sub or hit a golf shot.

Van Sickle: Which is amazing for a guy
who was once a minivolcano.

Anonymous Pro: The Aussie to watch
this year isn’t Norman, it’s Ogilvy. I think
he’s going to win, to be honest.

SHARK SIGHTING
Van Sickle: Greg Norman played his
way back into the Masters for the first
time since 2002 with a remarkable British
Open performance. Is his return a
big deal or mostly ceremonial?

Anonymous Pro: It would’ve been
really cool if he was coming back as the
Open champion. I wish he had won. I’ve
heard him say he’s basically just hoping
to make the cut at the Masters. That says
it all. He went away sooner than everyone
wanted, but he realizes this is probably
his last time around Augusta.

Shipnuck: Greg is a great Thursday story. I’ll be surprised if he gets into
contention. He couldn’t get it done in
Augusta when he was the best in the
world. He’s a middle-aged, part-time
golfer now. I don’t see it happening.

Garrity: I spent some time with Greg
and Chris Evert for a story recently. He’s
worked so hard to prepare for this physically.
He’s been doing a strong workout routine. The opportunity to go back
clearly means a lot. Even if it’s ceremonial,
he wants to play like the Shark.

Bamberger: I think it’s supercool for
him to come back with Chrissie to the
place where he made his reputation. I
hate this word, but this is great closure
for Greg. He earned his way back, and
that is very cool.

TIGER’S TALE
Van Sickle: This is the first major
that Tiger Woods will play in almost
10 months. If those goose bumps aren’t
too distracting, what does this Masters
look like for Tiger, apparently fully recovered
from serious knee surgery?

Anonymous Pro: He’ll be fine. I don’t
think his knee is an issue. He simply
needs some competitive golf. He made
zero putts at Doral and still finished in
the top 10. I’m sure he’ll do a flyby in
Augusta and be ready.

Bamberger: I wonder if these ordinary
Tour events like Doral and Bay Hill are
going to become harder and harder for
Tiger to get excited about. Yet he needs
these other events to get into shape to
play the majors.

Shipnuck: Given the rust, his play at
Doral was amazing. He was missing his
scoring touch, but you looked up and he
was in the top 10. Phil [Mickelson] took
a few months off and could barely break
80 at first. Tiger is definitely on schedule.
I have no doubt that he’ll be as good or
better than he was before the surgery, it’s
just a matter of how long it takes. He will
contend on the new Augusta National,
but he’s not quite the favorite he was on
the old Augusta National. Before, it was
Tiger and everybody else. This year he’s
one of six or seven co-favorites. But that
may not last long. He’s still Tiger.

Hack: Even with the course changes
Tiger is going to be the favorite at Augusta
for the next decade. Next week he’ll
finish top three for sure. His putter has
been cold the last two years. If he putts
like he did at Bay Hill, those runner-up
finishes will be three-shot wins, easy.

Garrity: As great a player as Tiger is,
he’s always had little flaws or technical
issues, whether it was Butch Harmon’s
swing or Hank Haney’s. The real
measure of Tiger is that he’s so able
to control the club face and manufacture
shots despite a swing flaw or an
unstable knee. He can still win and is
the favorite to win anywhere, under any
circumstance. His balance looks better
than it’s been in years, surely because
of his knee. He also doesn’t look as if
he’s trying to crush every shot, which I
like. I’d be very bullish on Tiger.


Anonymous Pro: Tiger says he hasn’t
changed his swing, but it looks lower
than it ever has, flatter on the downswing,
almost as if he’s trying to save some bad
swings with his right shoulder by trying
to get the club through. He’s on plane,
just flat. His left knee isn’t straightening,
it’s almost giving, which is why he’s losing
shots to the right. I’m sure his knee
is fine, but mentally, after years of knee
issues, he may not be ready to go at it the
way he used to. But he knows his swing.
He’ll figure it out. He always does.

AND THE WINNER IS …

Van Sickle: This is the part where we
predict the Masters champion. I don’t recall
any of us picking Trevor Immelman
last year. Given that our track record is
about the same as Jim Cramer’s, who do
you like?

Shipnuck: I’ve been backing Ogilvy all
year, but I also like Harrington. He has
a game plan for Augusta.
He’s not playing for top 10, he’s playing to
win, and he’s going to be aggressive. I’ll
take him and Ogilvy in a playoff.

Hack: I still like Phil.

Garrity: You realize that I’m retired
and I’m only here as a senior consultant.
If I have to pick somebody, I’ll go with Mickelson. Maybe the Masters is to Mickelson
what the British was to Watson,
and he’ll be a Hall of Famer who wins
four or five Masters, one or two PGAs
and nothing else.

Van Sickle: Tiger has never gone four
years without winning a Masters. This
would be the fourth year. Even in an
off-year, he finishes second. At his press
conference [at the Match Play] in Tucson,
I have never seen him more at ease or
happier with his life. I think that matters,
maybe a lot. It has always been a
bad idea to bet against Tiger. It still is.
I’ll go with the chalk.

Bamberger: I’m picking Dustin
Johnson, the guy who won at Pebble
Beach. He’s a very good golfer. He
looks like a beautiful lag putter. Possibly,
he’s a guy who doesn’t get rattled.
He has more of a jock mentality,
like a screw-you, get-out-of-my-way,
I’m-going-to-win-this-thing.

Van Sickle: He’d be the first Masters
champ who can dunk a basketball, although
if there was money on the line,
I wouldn’t have put it past the original
Slammer, Sam Snead.

Bamberger: I understand Gene Sarazen
could dunk.

Garrity: I’ll ask him the next time I see
him.