The Masters: Woods gets in 18 holes of practice

Tiger Woods hits from the sand at the practice range as he prepares for the Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., on Sunday, April 3, 2011.

Tiger Woods hits from the sand at the practice range as he prepares for the Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., on Sunday, April 3, 2011.

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – For a tour guide on his first time around Augusta National, Jeff Overton hit a rather prodigious grand slam.

He got Tiger Woods, which is akin to getting Sir Laurence Olivier to help you read your lines for the Shakespeare role.

And for a second day at Augusta National, a place he has always dreamed about? Overton hit the lottery again. You guessed it: Again he got Woods, only this time they played 18, first the back, then the front.

"Pretty cool to see this for the first time beside Tiger Woods," Overton said. "It was great just to listen to what he was saying."

In his sixth year on the PGA Tour, Overton is making his Masters debut and consequently wanted to get in as much practice as possible. Accompanied by his college coach at the Indiana University, Mike Mayer, Overton experienced Augusta National in pristine conditions, squeezed between its official colors – a pulsating blue sky and vibrant green carpet of grass.

"Nice to see it like this," Overton said. "Now I’ll only have to play nine each of the next three days."

Even nicer to study under the tutelage of a four-time champion.

"He talked about how they cut the fairways, how you’re usually hitting into the grain," Overton said, and to emphasize what he meant, the Masters rookie pointed to the fairways at Nos. 1 and 9, which run in opposite directions. One had a shine to it in the afternoon sun, the other didn’t.

As for the greens, Woods reminded Overton that it was Sunday, so don’t take too many notes. “They’re slow right now, but I know that will change,” Overton said.

The third member of the playing group caused eyebrows to be raised because Rory Sabbatini once gained notoriety for withdrawing from Woods’ charity tournament, and it clearly didn’t please the host. But given the aura and majesty of the Masters, stuff like that can be quickly forgotten, especially when Mother Nature has poured forth spectacular weather.

When you consider that at 8 a.m. Monday the gates to Augusta National will be opened and tens of thousands of patrons soon will fill nearly every square foot of this former fruitlands nursery, it’s no wonder the opportunity to see it Sunday in magnificent solitude was one that brought smiles to nearly every member, competitor and media member present.

As K.J. Choi marched to the first tee to join fellow South Korean Lion Kim – your 22-year-old U.S. Amateur Public Links champion – for a practice round, it was duly noted by a club official “that we have a Lion and a Tiger in this year’s field.”

That the Tiger in question, Woods, was without his longtime caddie, Steve Williams, had some people raising red flags, but one shouldn’t read much into it. It’s an easy Orlando-to-Augusta trip for Woods, not as easy for Williams coming from New Zealand, and you can count on their teamwork to be in place for his try to win a fifth green jacket.

Fact is, for Woods and so many of his colleagues – Phil Mickelson, most notably – the real study for this year’s Masters is done in trips made before tournament week. Woods’ nine holes Saturday and 18 Sunday came on his third trip to Augusta. Mickelson, a three-time Masters winner who was nailing down a victory in Houston on Sunday, has been up twice.

Most likely, you’ll not see them at Augusta National until Tuesday.

Which isn’t to say the show won’t go on – it surely will, and in all its springtime glory, too. That much was made evident on a warm and glorious Sunday that afforded members a chance to play for the last time before it is turned over exclusively to the competitors.

That is the charm of this annual day – members mixing in with players – and everyone, it seems, had a bounce to his step. Even legendary caddie Carl Jackson, who will mark his 50th Masters, seemed eager for another trip around Augusta National as he waited for his man, Ben Crenshaw, at the first tee.

Behind them, another two-time champion, Jose Maria Olazabal, opted for time on the putting green before pushing off from the 10th tee.

Not long after Crenshaw had gone off that Tom Watson, who 30 years ago won the second of his two green jackets, appeared at the first tee. Tea Olive, the robust 445-yard opening hole beckoned, but Watson spotted a Japanese golf journalist, Eiko Oizumi, standing nearby and offered condolences.

“I am sorry sorry for the people of Japan,” Watson said with a warm hug. “It hurts right here, in my heart.”

The scene hit at a point that sits at the heart of the Masters. As much as it’s a coveted major championship that is arguably the darling of the golf world, the gathering at Augusta National this April week renews friendships and reaffirms a shared passion for a sport that has never failed us.

It is why they still come, even if not to play. Fuzzy Zoeller, for instance, ended his 31-year run as a Masters competitor in 2009, but he wouldn’t miss this week for anything. Having played a practice round, Zoeller joked with a few writers, then made his way to the sun-splashed back lawn for lunch. There will be other days to do similarly, but Zoeller knows they won’t be like this first Sunday in April, because on this day, not only are the azaleas in full bloom, but so, too, is the remarkable solitude.

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