Rain stacks deck for big hitters

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- With every raindrop that fell Tuesday, the number of players who stand between Tiger Woods and a third consecutive Masters victory dwindled.

The length added to Augusta National in 2001 turned into an advantage for Woods last year, when a mid-tournament rainstorm softened greens and took the roll out of the fairways. The longer the hitter, the more favorable these conditions are. Woods won in a finish as undramatic as Madonna's last movie.

A sodden winter, followed by a storm Monday that forced course officials to close the grounds to patrons for the first time in 20 years, mean that the "new" Augusta National won't make its debut in tournament competition before 2004. That also means, with the changes in technology that have been embraced by the world's top golfers, the short hitters once again have long odds to win The Masters.

"For guys like me to have a chance, it's got to be hard and fast," Scott Hoch said last month. "If it gets wet, it's going to be damn hard."

Wet it is. Gray skies have parked above Augusta and will be here through Thursday. "I think it certainly favors someone who is hitting the ball high and long and straight," Woods said Tuesday. "Most of the high bombs that I hit out there today picked up mud. It's a Catch-22. You want to keep it so it runs over the mud but, then again, you're not going to hit it quite as far, either."

The Masters has had a number of champions who won because of their short games and their putters. In the last two decades, Ben Crenshaw, Bernhard Langer and Jose Maria Olazabal won two green jackets apiece, the only major championships of their careers. However, their victories came on a shorter Augusta National, without the modern golf ball, which is only a narrow underdog to gravity.

The course is 7,290 yards on the scorecard and in typical conditions, with the severe downgrades on several fairways, doesn't play that long. This week, in this weather, it will play more like 7,600, estimated Ernie Els. "It's going to help the guys who hit it long," he said. Added Davis Love III, "It's playing even longer than last year. At least last year, we started off with it dry."

The 47-year-old Hoch won at Doral this year, proof that the shorter, straighter hitter can thrive on a long course. He also has played well at The Masters, losing in a playoff to Nick Faldo in 1989. Mike Weir, the Canadian who is more accurate than Lasik, has won twice. Hoch and Weir have become Exhibits 1 and 1-A that the Tour doesn't belong exclusively to the long hitter.

Yet in a year when the new golf balls have added 30 yards to Els' tee shots, in a season when Woods, Els and Love have combined to win seven times, and during a week when Augusta National will be as firm as Craig Stadler's waist, the idea that the Weirs and Justin Leonards of the world can win the 2003 Masters sounds like folly. Take Tiger. Take Ernie. Take Davis. Take Phil Mickelson. Take a guess as to who else won't need to make every shot perfect.

"If Justin Leonard is playing well, (the increase in length) doesn't matter," Love said. "If he's not playing 100 percent, it's hard on him. If he's playing 90 percent at the Honda, he can beat me. ... The guys who hit it long won't get as worn down."

Augusta National will wear out a short hitter as if he were a clutch in a teenager's first car. "When guys are hitting 6- and 7-irons, you have to make a 3-iron shot to a pretty quick green off a sidehill, downhill lie," said Jerry Kelly, who finished 20th here last year in his Masters debut. "It's a major, so the pressure is there. It's harder for someone who needs to keep track of every shot in order to succeed. It's easier for a long hitter to miss a shot here and there and get it back on the par 5s."

Brad Faxon, who has finished tied for 10th and tied for 12th in the last two Masters, wonders why anyone expresses surprise that the tournament is tilted toward players such as Woods and Els.

"My reply to that is, if you're a short hitter, when have you never had to be on to win?" he asked. "Why is this a new thing? When has power never been an advantage? It's always been an advantage."

In other words, this just in: Jack Nicklaus has won more of these than anyone else.

"When Jack was the dominant player, he consistently hit it 30 to 40 yards by the average guy," Faxon said. "I wonder if the powers that be understand fully that just making the hole 40 yards longer -- the course already favors the long ball. It's not The Masters that it used to be."

He brought up 1986, when Nicklaus won his last Masters with magic so captivating that CBS is using tape of it in promos this week. "How many guys had a chance to win?" Faxon asked. "Corey Pavin. (Greg) Norman. Seve (Ballesteros). Tom Kite -- a variety of players. Langer has won twice. Olazabal. Strikers and short-game plodders. Are we going to see that anymore? Is this becoming a U.S. Open-type course? If Tiger hits an 8-iron into No. 15, do they add more trees and more rough? It's still the hardest second shot in the world."

Bob Jones, the co-founder of Augusta National, used to refer to Nos. 13 and 15, the par-5s on the back nine as "par four-and-a-halfs" because the second shot over water guarding the greens offered such a stark choice of risk-reward. By 1991, when 18 players made eagle at No. 15, the idea of risk began to seem quaint. Last year, with the tee moved back, mature trees added down the right side, the green more difficult to hold and the bailout area to the right taken away, the players made only eight eagles.

"I think the third shot on 15 is scarier than 12, really," Love said, referring to the tee shot on the par-3 12th, the elbow of Amen Corner. "Ken Venturi used to say there are five numbers in the equation, 3-4-5-6-7 on 15. All the numbers are in there now. You can make a 10."

Whether the alterations ordered by Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson and designed by Tom Fazio protected the course so well that they changed it is impossible to know until The Masters can be played on something other than a rice paddy surrounded by azaleas.

This year, the only hole changed is No. 5, the unknown beauty of Augusta National. The par-4 is the most distant hole from the clubhouse. With a crosswalk that allows the gallery to go from the third green and fourth tee to the sixth green, No. 5 is heard more than it is seen.

In recent years on the slight dogleg left, what once had been a mid-iron approach to a green that tilts severely from front to back had become a wedge. The club responded by narrowing the fairway with the creation of two large, deep bunkers on the left side of the fairway. Deep as in, "You go in there, you don't see anything," Woods said. "All you see is blue sky -- or actually, gray sky."

As with the changes made two years ago, the character of the new No. 5 won't really be known until The Masters gets a week of cool mornings, warm days and breezes that send puffs of pollen wafting atop the spectators. Asked about the changes before he saw them, Hoch said, "They haven't made it shorter. I know that."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.