The calm before the Masters storm

Walking the grounds of Augusta National conjures up all kinds of stories. Doing it the day before Masters week yields situations no one could anticipate.

So what did our scribes see just days before the year's first major championship? We'll let ESPN.com golf writers Jason Sobel and Bob Harig describe it in detail in their e-mail chat, Alternate Shot.

My favorite day on the golf calendar every year -- no surprise here -- has always been Masters Sunday. Yeah, I know. Me and about 50 million other golf fans. Well, now it has become a tie for first, because there's nothing cooler than being at Augusta National Golf Club for the Sunday before the Masters. That's when the course is closed to the public and members can get in one final round among the practicing professionals prior to surrendering their home course for the next week.

Bob, you and I first came to Augusta on the preceding Sunday last year. Not sure about you, but I won't miss this one again for a long time. Such a unique experience.

Having been to the Masters a number of times, it is almost eerie how different the atmosphere is here on the Sunday prior to the tournament. Knowing what it will be like come Monday, it's cool to see this place so calm, as if it's just another Sunday at the club, albeit one of the most famous in the world.

Of course, it didn't hurt that within a matter of minutes, the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked players showed up, put a peg in the ground and were off.

Yup, Tiger Woods teed off as a single at exactly 1:17 p.m. local time, promptly pushing his drive to the right of the first fairway. "Well," he said almost under his breath, "I made contact."

Woods then followed by doing what any golfer playing alone behind a twosome would do -- he dropped another ball on the tee and hit a second, pulling it well left. Meanwhile, Phil Mickelson was just beginning to roll a few putts about 20 yards away on the practice green.

"You guys here to follow the big man?" he said with a smile to the few reporters looking in Tiger's direction.

Nope, just hangin' around, checking out the most surreal scene in pro golf. Oh, and let it be known that exactly 10 minutes after Woods teed off, Lefty pummeled his drive right down the middle. No mulligan needed.

What would really be surreal is if these guys were this close together on Sunday. I mean, that's what everybody would love to see, right?

It is pretty ironic that they got here within an hour of each other Sunday -- Phil came from Houston, where he missed the cut -- and they walk out onto the course at nearly the same time and then play practice rounds one group apart. We would take them one group apart in seven days -- if it were the last group and second-to-last group.

Well, that's what we've been waiting for these past, oh, dozen or so years, isn't it?

Although TW teed it up alone, Phil had a playing partner on Sunday. As he walked off the practice green, Mickelson yelled to a member on the veranda and asked whether he was ready to go.

"Five more minutes!" the member responded. Uh-huh. Only at Augusta National can a two-time champ be slow-played to the first tee.

But really, this whole day was about things being slow and relaxed. Even though players were preparing for a major, it's not crunch time just yet, and there were plenty of smiles and laughs in this type of atmosphere.

And that is what makes the day unique. We typically don't get to see these guys in this type of situation. Usually the practice rounds at major championship venues are stress tests -- and that certainly will be the case on Monday and Tuesday.

Players will try to get their work done while the ropes are lined with screaming, photograph-seeking fans. Sunday was so much simpler than that. One minute, Luke Donald was talking about how it was a blessing that he missed the cut in Houston.

The next minute, he's teeing off with long-hitting Alvaro Quiros of Spain -- and then getting some good-natured ribbing from Jose Maria Olazabal, who watched Donald come up 70 yards short of Quiros' drive. "Luke, you're going to need binoculars.''

Some of the funniest stuff I heard out here -- granted, I missed Boo Weekley, who had just teed off before I got to the first tee -- came from Mark O'Meara, who joked about being miffed that his buddy Tiger traveled to Augusta without him and didn't wait for him in his practice round.

"We played two days at Isleworth. He never asked how I was getting here. I had to fly commercial!" O'Meara said in mock disgust. "What does he think, I'm the honorary starter? Where's the love?"

O'Meara was one of just several past Masters champions playing the course. Sandy Lyle teed off before him, and Ian Woosnam followed.

Doug Ford and Bob Goalby also were here, as were Larry Mize and Nick Faldo, who was playing with his son, Matthew. It was Faldo who talked about the Augusta National aura and how a round during the tournament was just "you and your caddie and the other guy and his caddie. That's it. No commotion.''

There was one other well-known player on the course Sunday. I overheard him saying he played pretty well on the front but got tired on the back nine. That's OK, he probably has some other things on his mind this week. That player? Masters chairman Billy Payne.