Field gets last tune-up at wet Augusta

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Tiger Woods didn't have to hit a single shot for the show to begin at this year's Masters.

As Woods played his final practice round Wednesday at soggy Augusta National -- heavy rain that has fallen since Sunday kept The Masters from starting Thursday at its appointed time of 8:10 a.m. ET; the club hoped to start at 11 a.m. from the first and 10th tees -- attention shifted from his bid for an unprecedented third straight green jacket to a cramped room that was filled with them.

More than 60 men, all wearing the coveted symbol in golf, flanked chairman Hootie Johnson in a stubborn defense of the club's all-male membership.

"If I drop dead this second, our position will not change on
this issue," the 72-year-old Johnson said. "It's not my issue alone."

Still, it's an issue that already has made this a Masters unlike
any other.

Sure, the azaleas and dogwoods are bursting with colors. Arnold
Palmer still strolls the fairways, carried along by a legion of
fans. And Woods, as always, is the heavy favorite.

But beyond the gates of Augusta National lurks a foreign
sensation -- controversy.

About a half-mile down the street from Magnolia Lane, local
officials have set aside a 5.1-acre grassy lot for demonstrations --
and not just for Martha Burk and her National Council of Women's
Organizations, who have pressured the club for the last nine months
to add its first female member.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition plan to
protest with Burk.

They will be joined by two groups protesting Burk, another
protesting Jackson, a one-man faction of the Ku Klux Klan
supporting Augusta National and a man who calls his group "People
Against Ridiculous Protests."

Johnson seemed oblivious to it all.

Anyone who thought Augusta National might cave in to pressure
and allow a woman to wear a green jacket was met -- again -- by utter
defiance during a 22-minute news conference.

"There may well come a time when we include women as members of
our club, and that remains true," he said. "However, I want to
emphasize that we have no timetable, and our membership is very
comfortable with our present status."

Johnson cut loose his four sponsors to keep them out of the
fray, leading to the first commercial-free broadcast of a sporting
event on network television. He said The Masters could survive
"indefinitely" without TV money.

"I think it's kind of sad," said Burk, who watched a telecast
of the news conference. "He's firmly planting his seat in the last

Players have been dragged into the debate, too. Instead of being
asked about the slick, contoured greens and the tricky 12th hole
planted behind Rae's Creek, they are grilled on whether women
should belong to the private club that hosts the public Masters.

Woods would like to see Augusta National admit women members,
although the world's No. 1 player concedes he has no influence on
club matters.

Johnson could not have agreed more.

"I won't tell Tiger how to play golf if he doesn't tell us how
to run our private club," Johnson said.

Woods certainly doesn't need any lessons.

Already the most dominant player in golf, Woods looks better
than ever after taking two months off for surgery on his left knee.

Now, he is on familiar soil, a course he has mastered under
every circumstance:

  • A 12-stroke victory in 1997 when he broke the course record at
    18-under 270.

  • A two-stroke victory in 2001 under the pressure of trying to
    become the first player in history to win four straight
    professional majors.

  • A three-shot win last year when his top challengers wilted
    trying to catch him.

    "It's not a golf course where I feel like I'm learning
    something every time I play it, or I have to go out there and learn
    something," Woods said. "I feel as if I have a pretty good
    understanding of how to play each and every hole."

    He has played five tournaments in the last two months and won
    three times, including an 11-stroke victory at Bay Hill, a course
    set up for big hitters.

    Augusta National figures to play longer than ever -- another
    advantage for Woods.

    The sun disappeared Sunday morning and heavy rain has pounded
    Augusta National for the last three days, closing the golf course
    on Monday and limiting the amount of practice.

    "It favors someone who is hitting the ball high and long and
    straight," Woods said. "You've got to keep the ball in the
    fairway, but you've got to get it out there. These fairways are
    playing really soft right now, and they're picking up mud."

    The club already has said players won't be able to lift, clean
    and place their balls in the fairway. Mud on the ball makes it
    difficult to control where it's going, and control is everything at

    Crews will have to use hand mowers to cut only the landing areas
    in the fairway because of the soft ground. Already, workers were
    spreading anti-absorbent granules on the ground.

    Players are using 2-irons and fairway metals to reach the par-4
    18th green.

    "It has played as long as it's ever played," Phil Mickelson

    He is among a host of players who have the length and game to
    try to stop Woods from capturing another piece of history.

    Ernie Els has moved up to No. 2 in the world by winning 11 times
    in the last 16 months, including the first two PGA Tour events.
    Right behind is Davis Love III, who is coming off a final-round 64
    to win The Players Championship.

    For Els and other players, the biggest distraction is not the
    controversy swirling around the club, it's the name that is so
    often atop the leaderboard.

    "Let's face it," Els said. "Tiger's going to be there."

    Unlike previous Masters, even that won't guarantee him being the
    only show in town.