Masters Wednesday is the calm before the storm

Luke Donald, of England, talks to his daughter during the Par-3 Contest at Augusta National.

Luke Donald, of England, talks to his daughter during the Par-3 Contest at Augusta National.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Masters’ eve is not a time for last-minute cramming for the year’s first examination. No, it’s actually a day designed for relaxation, some light practice and family fun at the Par-3 Contest.

Most players limit themselves to nine practice holes before taking part in Augusta’s pitch-and-putt event. The tournament course closes at 3 p.m., but it’s virtually empty even earlier than that. Caddies walk the fairways alone, getting yardages for Thursday’s play. There are few patrons, even at Amen Corner, as they’ve been pulled to the Par-3 Course to catch a glimpse of not only this year’s competitors but the game’s senior statesmen – Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player played together again - and cute children wearing caddies’ coveralls.

“We enjoy it because we get to take our kids out, our families out ... and take a deep breath and relax before the tournament starts,” said Jim Furyk. The competition’s results are unimportant. The winner is recognized more for the curse he has inherited – no one has won the Par-3 Contest and the Masters in the same year – than for his victory.

Wednesday of Masters week is unlike any in golf. No other major has such a light atmosphere on its eve. “It’s one of the most relaxed Wednesdays you could have,” said Robert Garrigus. “This is a very hard golf tournament to get in. It’s a very hard tournament to play in. If you’re not hitting your spots, it can make a fool out of you. It’s nice to get this Wednesday break.”

Wednesday’s casual atmosphere is a bit of a departure from Augusta’s normally aristocratic air. Scott Piercy wore laceless Converse shoes under the oak tree in front of the clubhouse, as golf dignitaries mingled nearby or ate lunch on tables covered by the club’s trademark green-and-white umbrellas. Annika Sorenstam was among them. Al Geiberger opted for one of the club’s famed fried chicken sandwiches, eating it out of the green wrapper.

U.S. Amateur champion Steven Fox was calling it a day after competing in the Par-3 Contest with Brandt Snedeker. “I’m just going to relax tonight, stay in the Crow’s Nest, probably order some room service, maybe get a bowl of ice cream or Banana’s Foster,” Fox said.

The real fun begins Thursday. Players were raving about the course Wednesday, but conditions can change quickly overnight. Phil Mickelson said this is the “best I’ve ever seen (Augusta National). The grass is in incredible shape.” That makes for a bit more cushion in the chipping areas, but also means less roll on players’ tee shots.

Zach Johnson’s caddie, Damon Green, said the greens were “just a little bit firm. You can still stop (the ball) with a good shot. They’re not bouncing yet.

“But it could be a totally different course tomorrow. They could suck all that moisture out and it would be like landing a ball on (Interstate 4).”

Robert Garrigus said the greens are firmer and faster than last year, but approach shots were still leaving pitch marks in the greens. Phil Mickelson said Tuesday that “the green are nothing scary like they used to be.”

Mickelson said Augusta National’s greens have been among the softest on Tour in recent years. And they have been slowed from their once frightening speed.

Furyk agreed with Mickelson’s assessment. The reason? “I think since they lengthened the golf course and did some changes with the design, ... (the greens) are not nearly as firm as they used to be or as fast as they used to be,” Furyk said. “We give them plenty of respect, but we’re hitting such longer clubs into the greens now. That used to be the defense. When you saw Tiger hitting 9-iron into 15, the defense was that the green was brick hard and lightning quick. Now with the length added, it’s not needed.”

Furyk and Green both said they would like to see the fairways a bit firmer. Length off the tee is not one of Furyk’s assets, nor is it one that Green’s boss possesses. Firmer fairways help some of the fields shorter hitters stay competitive. Martin Laird, the last man to earn a spot in this year’s field, said Augusta National is the “lushest” he’s ever seen it. This is his third Masters.

“It’s immaculate,” said Laird, winner of last week’s Valero Texas Open. “It’s always really good, but this year it seems to be really, really good.”

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