April 9, 2009

Better Red Than Dead

An abundance of birdies has breathed life back into the Masters. Tim Rosaforte wonders, what's wrong with that?

The warm temperatures and low scores have contributed to a renewed buzz at Augusta National.

The warm temperatures and low scores have contributed to a renewed buzz at Augusta National.

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The roars returned to Augusta National on Thursday, but were they too loud, or too frequent? Were nine birdies each by Chad Campbell and Hunter Mahan overkill? What does it say that three members of the field eligible for AARP not only broke par, but also were in contention after the opening day of the 73rd Masters?

That's what Jim Furyk was wondering after hitting all 18 greens in regulation and shooting 66 without a bogey to smudge his scorecard. Brought into the media center, he was told that Padraig Harrington had just proclaimed this the "most generous" setup he's ever seen at the Masters.

"That will make them really mad," Furyk said with a wry grin, eliciting laughter.

A case could be made that no it won't, that this is a new Masters, or at least a Masters that Billy Payne has more control over in his third year as chairman of the club, and the tournament.

It doesn't pain Payne that his golf course was made accessible on Thursday. He understands the counter balance between this being a major championship, and the Bob Hope Classic. He told the past champions at their dinner on Tuesday evening that he would turn up the volume on this year's tournament, and so the opening round felt and sounded like one of those days that have made the golf in this event so spectacular over the years.

Or at least since the final round in 2004, the great shootout between Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els a day when Will Nicholson, then the chairman of the rules and competition committee, decided to let the boys play.

"They felt sorry for us," said Campbell, the first-round leader with a 65.

"This day was reminiscent of how it used to be," said Tiger Woods.

More than any tournament, this one is controlled by the front office. The previous administration, led by Chairman Hootie Johnson, brought in Tom Fazio to add length, trees and pin placements to combat the onslaught of technology. "Fix it," Johnson told Fazio. Truth is, Hootie may have overfixed it, but the weather in part dictated some of the dullest Sundays ever witnessed inside the gates of this institution.

This is more than just about an extra 400 yards, the deepening of the bunkers and the element of turning down the screws on what made the Masters the Masters. This is about the philosophy of what makes a major a major. Does it reflect poorly on the club when Woods shot 18 under in 1997, or when Jack Nicklaus posts a back-nine 30 to win in 1986? Absolutely not.

"Well, no one wants to hear the roars and the excitement more than the members and the volunteers who put on the tournament," the chairman acknowledged at his Wednesday news conference. "And it is true that through the years, we have become accustomed to those. It is also trie that over the last couple of years, there have not been as many.

"I maintain that it has been a consequence of the difficult playing conditions, mostly attributable to the weather on the weekend days of the last several years."

Payne must have some pull, because the cold and the wind that basically shut down the course for practice rounds was replaced by one of the most glorious weather days, prompting Harrington to say, "They got a nice, sunny day with no wind. Do they have control over that?"

Again, more laughter, but while Payne can't control the weather (afternoon thunderstorms are anticipated on Friday), the chairman can control the underground sub-air system that dictates the firmness of the greens. He can also oversee pin and tee block placements made by Fred Ridley, the former USGA president who now presides over the competition committee.

At a dinner for Mercedes-Benz on Thursday night in Augusta, two-time champion Bernhard Langer praised Payne for taking the initiative of restoring the excitement to Augusta. Langer, along with playing partner Greg Norman shot 70, while their Champions Tour brother Larry Mize posted 67.

At 51, Langer felt like he still had a chance to win -- and is there anything wrong with that? With the course set up properly, the cross-section of players in contention range from bombers like Woods (70) and Angel Cabrera (68), to ball-control artists like Furyk, Harrington (69), Tim Clark (68) and Mike Weir (68).

"You know, I think we have it about right," the chairman said before the first shot was even struck. "I would be quick to add this week is an important test."

We'll give Payne an "A" for Thursday in hopes that the chairman doesn't have payback in mind, that the pins won't be in the pine forests, that the tees won't be in downtown Aiken, and the buzz that made the Masters the Masters will be as much a part of the next three days at Augusta National as it was the first.