Players get first look at 'new' 17th hole at Augusta

As is normal, the fairways and greens at Augusta National are in pristine condition. Here, Billy Horschel walks up the 10th fairway. The only difference seen on Sunday is the lack of a few trees across the course, victims of a February ice storm.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – As he made his way up the hill behind the 18th green and headed toward the clubhouse, Fred Couples stopped and studied the surroundings. It required not a short look, but a long, healthy gaze, for when he’s at Augusta National, Couples is enveloped in warmth, especially when the scene is saturated in serenity, as it was by mid-afternoon Sunday.

The buzz and excitement of the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship was over, the 18th hole was open for play, and Couples – as he always appears when he’s here – looked like a young boy on Christmas morning. He had rushed onto the course and now, his round alongside Craig Stadler over, the 1992 Masters champion was in no rush to leave.

Of course, protocol dictated he stop, too, because golfers were on the first tee. So Couples acknowledged the presence of Bernhard Langer, whose drive split the fairway. Given an opening to leave, Couples instead chose to watch Langer’s playing partner hit, then he delivered warm applause for a drive that was also well played.

Christina Langer, the two-time Masters champ’s daughter, smiled, waved her appreciation, and with that, they were free to go their separate ways – Langer toward the first hole with her dad, Couples into the pro shop to buy some merchandise.

It was Sunday, the day before the 78th Masters was to officially begin, and a quieter, more peaceful place was difficult imagine.

To a guy like Mark O’Meara, who first saw Augusta National in 1980 and is here for the 30th time, it was a day that offered him a routine of which never tires. But so, too, was it a day that presented a look he has never seen, much to his resignation.

“No tree lives forever,” said O’Meara, who was seeing Augusta National for the first time without the iconic Eisenhower Tree. For years, it guarded the left side of the fairway at No. 17, and no matter which way you shaped your tee shot, the tree was to be treated with respect.

But when Mother Nature delivered a vicious ice storm back in February, the tree was a casualty, and so here we are for the 78th Masters without it. “It certainly looks way different,” said O’Meara. “It’s kind of a shame. The hole is a little more forgiving, but let’s face it, the Eisenhower Tree didn’t come into play for today’s players. They just hit it over.”

For his practice round, O’Meara hit a driver, 6-iron at the 440-yard hole, so it was still a challenge, but he thinks it could play slightly easier for the younger crowd.

Time will tell, of course, but as O’Meara and others meandered their way along this historic course, it was clear that the Eisenhower wasn’t the only tree to fall.

“It looks like she took it on the chin this winter,” said Ben Crenshaw, casting his gaze out over Augusta National from the area behind the ninth green, then over at the 10th tee. Crenshaw pointed down the 10th fairway where you could see through trees and catch a glimpse of the 11th hole. “You couldn’t see that far before,” he said, and the same was true from behind the ninth green where you could look out over a wide expanse of green landscape and catch a view of the par-5 15th. Likewise, that wasn’t possible before.

Now none of this is to suggest that Augusta National will play easier, because after Monday’s forecast of rain, better weather is predicted for later in the week and there’s every reason to believe the course will provide a premier test.

“A lot of trees have taken a lot of damage,” said O’Meara, “but the fairways are in great shape and so are the greens.”

If there was a peacefulness to the day, so, too, did there seem to be a sense of urgency. Part of that might stem from the fact that Monday is not supposed to be a great day to play and so they arrived in an organized rush, Masters participants with a Sunday purpose – and a national coordination. South Africans Louis Oosthuizen and Branden Grace were in one pairing, right behind fellow South Africans Tim Clark and Trevor Immelman. The Spaniards went on in force, Jose Maria Olazabal, Miguel Angel Jimenez, and Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, and a pair of Old School Americans – Bob Goalby and Doug Ford – were on the course, too, as were New School Americans Brandt Snedeker and Harris English.

But one annual Sunday visitor was not on site, nor will he be here this week. Tiger Woods’ bid for a fifth green jacket and 15th major championship will be on the sidelines, his recovery from a microdiscectomy expected to take perhaps four months, maybe more.

O’Meara certainly feels the void.

“Anytime he’s not in the field it’s a little bit of a drawback, because you could say he’s the face of the game,” said O’Meara. But at the same time, the man who helped mentor a young Tiger Woods said it’s nonsense to shortchange the significance of the 2014 Masters because of one man’s absence.

“There will still be a buzz to this Masters. No any one player is bigger than the Masters,” said O’Meara. “The Masters makes great players, players don’t make the Masters great.”

Enveloped in a precious solitude, the view from the clubhouse supported O’Meara’s sentiments. There was Langer on the putting green, Ben Crenshaw over at the 10th tee, and who moved in between them headed toward the Par 3 Course was none other than Nick Faldo.

Their legacies, rich and deserved, are owed in great part to this tournament, this golf course, and so they return out of respect for an annual pilgrimage that is unmatched in golf, maybe in sports.

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