Saturday, April 07, 2007

"Now this is golf"

As great as the Masters and its tradition is, it's never been on the same plateau to me as the U.S. Open and British Open.

It's always been the third best major.

The reason? Quite simply, the course at Augusta National has never been as difficult as the majority of courses the best two majors are played on. While players at the U.S. and British opens - especially the US Open - often struggle to stay in the red, traditionally at the Masters there are several players below par.

And that's not as exciting as seeing players have to battle to stay under par. Additionally, in those tournaments the best players – the champion players - find a way to separate themselves from the rest of the pack in amazing displays of guts and near-perfect play (Tiger Woods’ performance in last year’s British Open was a perfect example).

There have been a few cases where courses wavered on the edge of unfair. Where greens weren't sufficiently watered or holes were made too long for even today's prototype pro.
But those were isolated cases. For the most part, the U.S. Open and British Open courses players struggled to navigate have just been very, very difficult.

Well, now I am watching the third round of the Masters and see just one player at the moment - Stuart Appleby - under par, and it's a beautiful sight. Almost as picturesque as the course at Augusta.

It's not that the players are performing poorly. It's not that they didn't show up ready to conquer the course this week. It's a combination of a more difficult course - each year over the past handful of years, holes have been lengthened and obstacles added - and the kind of conditions that we're used to seeing at the British Open. Chilly temperatures (the wind chill, according to CBS, is in the 40s on a sunny afternoon) and plenty of wind.

It's great golf. It's what separates the majors from the other tournaments during the year. It's like a defensive battle in football, like a pitchers' dual in baseball. If you're a true fan of the game, you're loving this.

Nobody's out of it. Phil Mickelson just completed his round. He's six over, but he's not out of it, because when conditions like these hit, anything can happen. Anything.

That's not something we'd normally say about the Masters.

Even Woods, arguably the world's greatest athlete, is suffering his bumps and bruises. He just had to hit a hook shot around a grove of trees on the 17th hole, suffering a bogey.

Yet Woods, at the moment, is just three shots back. And no one will deny that a tournament has all the more drama when he's in the mix.

Regardless of what happens in the next two hours, as the players finish off their third rounds, we'll know this much when we wake up tomorrow morning.

We'll know that the fourth round at Augusta might be the craziest, most dramatic final round in quite sometime (think Norman's collapse; Faldo's theft).

We'll know that 20 or 30 players will still have a chance at winning the thing (just post a low number and watch the poor beings left on the course suffer their fate).

We'll know that Tiger, and Phil, and Vijay will all be in the running (which, I'm sure, is much to the liking of CBS).

And we'll know nothing - absolutely nothing - about what is about to transpire.

Except that the scores will likely be high. The temperature will be much lower than normal. The winds will likely be gusting.

And we’ll know that whoever gets fitted with the Green Jacket Sunday evening will have earned it like never before.

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