Woods quietly preps at Augusta

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – Augusta National looked like most other private clubs on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

But most clubs don’t get this kind of star power.

Tiger Woods, sporting a goatee, was on the course for the first time since his runner-up finish last year at the Masters, playing nine holes and hitting 3-wood on the 10th hole before walking over to a sandwich stand that catered to players and guests.

Guests?

That’s right. On the day before practice rounds begin for the season’s first major, guests are allowed to play on the hallowed and supremely manicured grounds of Augusta National.

Strangely enough, members are not allowed to bring a guest on this day. Only former Masters champions have that privilege.

That explains why Mark O’Meara was playing with his caddie, why Mike Weir teed off with his brother, and why Bernhard Langer had the ultimate family outing – he played with his daughter, while son Stefan caddied for him.

Woods played No. 10, then hopped over to the 18th and called it a day.

He has not won the Masters since 2005, and while that might not seem like an eternity to players like Greg Norman and Ernie Els – who have never won at Augusta National – if the world’s No. 1 fails to win this week, it will be the longest he has gone without wearing a green jacket anywhere but the Champions Dinner.

Woods is coming off a victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and again is a strong favorite at the Masters.

But he has company in that category.

Phil Mickelson missed the cut in the wind-blown Shell Houston Open, which may have been just as well. He got in a few days of competition and arrived at the Masters a day earlier than expected, allowing him to play nine holes in the group behind Woods. Mickelson already has won twice this year, and he can go to No. 1 in the world by winning the Masters.

Geoff Ogilvy also has won twice this year, while Padraig Harrington will try to join Woods and Ben Hogan as the only players to win three straight majors in the modern era.

Who doesn’t have a chance this week?

Look no further than a couple of Masters champions who also played Sunday on a calm, cloudy afternoon – Charles Coody and Tommy Aaron. They won their green jackets before half of the field was even born.

And by the sound of it, Alvaro Quiros doesn’t like his chances, either.

But give the personable Spaniard some time. He had never even seen Augusta National – in person or on television – until he arrived Sunday and played nine holes with Luke Donald.

Quiros, whose reputation as a big hitter is growing quickly, is the son of a gardener from the famed “Costa Del Sol” just down the road from Valderrama. They didn’t have enough money to pay for the satellite feed required to watch the Masters, so his only visual of the Augusta National came from a DVD on Seve Ballesteros. Those highlights only featured the 15th, 16th and 18th holes.

Quiros had just settled into a patio chair to order lunch when Donald mentioned that the Spaniard hit wedge into the 445-yard first hole, with the first 300 yards uphill.

So what did he think of the front nine?

“Too much,” Quiros said. “Some of the shots? Impossible.”

Donald grinned, having been there before. The Englishman has moderate length, at best, yet tied for third in 2005. Quiros needs a crash course on Augusta National, and he plans to play Monday with two-time winner Jose Maria Olazabal and Miguel Angel Jimenez.

Quiros also needs experience ordering food.

“Are the salads big?” he asked. The waiter concurred, and Quiros settled on a Caesar chicken salad.

But he wasn’t finished.

“I have to asked another question. What about the all-beef hot dog? Is that big?” he said. And when the waiter gave that a thumbs-up, Quiros ordered them both.

Lunch at Augusta National, much like the atmosphere on Sunday, felt like a picnic. Y.E. Yang sat down with his family, while British Amateur Reinier Saxton finished lunch and joined U.S. Amateur champion Danny Lee on the putting green.

Another newcomer to the Masters was Soren Kjeldsen, who prepared to play a practice round by himself. When he arrived on the tee, someone else was ready to tee off, so brief introductions were in order.

“Hi, Ray Floyd,” said the two-time Masters champion. “Would you mind if my son and I joined you?”

Kjeldsen removed his hat to shake hands and smiled.

Odds are, the Dane was not aware of this Masters tradition, that on the Sunday before one of the biggest tournaments in golf, a past champion could play with his son. Stranger still must have been what he saw next.

Floyd and his son were riding in a cart.

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