Augusta National full of anticipation

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- For those so engaged, the golf season has been in full bloom for some time, perhaps going back to Pebble Beach when Phil Mickelson shot a final-round 64 to begin a compelling run of tournament action.

But to many who only casually follow the game, the golf season starts here, at Augusta National, where all the beauty forces you to take notice, where the year's first major championship awakens the masses from their slumber.

And so it was that the gates opened Sunday morning, and a few outsiders were let in to see the place in all its glory.

No spectators were allowed on the day before Masters week truly begins, but a smattering of players were practicing on the storied course alongside Augusta National members, who take advantage of one last opportunity to play before the masses invade Monday in what is the largest assemblage of golf fans anywhere to watch a meaningless practice round.

Tiger Woods, a week removed from his first official PGA Tour victory in 30 months, arrived from Florida on Sunday morning, hustled to the driving range to warm up and then headed to the course for an early-afternoon practice round.

And he admitted Sundays around here prior to the tournament are pretty nice.

"It's great," he said. "So quiet. There's nobody out there."

It's not often Woods can say that about a tournament venue, but Augusta is different, special -- and probably nothing like it will be when the tournament begins on Thursday.

"You know how it is," he said. "It changes from Wednesday to Thursday."

Woods said so with a smirk, as if it is just understood that the Augusta gods somehow transform their course overnight.

He was about to tee it up in a practice round with longtime friend and 1998 Masters winner Mark O'Meara ("He's going to be complaining about how long it is," Woods joked), who now plays on the Champions Tour. Rounding out their threesome was a guest, Dr. Vern Cooley.

Cooley is an orthopedic surgeon from Park City, Utah, who along with his partner, Dr. Tom Rosenberg, took part in an important surgery -- the one that repaired Woods' left knee just more than a week after winning the 2008 U.S. Open.

Woods is looking for his first major title since that victory at Torrey Pines and for the first time in more than 20 years, his caddie, Joe LaCava, is working for somebody other than Fred Couples here.

LaCava first caddied for Ken Green at Augusta National in 1989, then went with Couples starting in 1990. Couples won the green jacket in 1992, missed 1994 due to a back injury, but played every year since. A year ago, with LaCava on the bag, Couples tied for 15th.

But until two weeks ago, LaCava had never been here on a day other than tournament week. He and Woods came on March 18 for a quick practice round.

"I've never seen it like that," LaCava said. "It was wild, 9 and 18 looked naked. It looks much better with the people in the stands. It was wild."

LaCava noted changes at the eighth and 16th greens, differences that are subtle but noticeable to those who have spent considerable time here as part of the tournament.

He also said that for those who have played the course numerous times, there isn't much to learn even several days before the tournament is to begin, simply because the venue seemingly changes overnight.

"I don't know how they do it, but they do it," LaCava said. "The conditions will be much different, if they have it their way. It's very green and lush. It's been warmer than usual. If it gets hot there will be storms and some rain, but they have a way of drying it out. Firm and fast will be awesome."

Although there might be little to be learned from early visits to Augusta National -- unless you've never seen the place before -- that didn't stop Mickelson from coming.

The three-time Masters champion knows his way around the place, but he still came here the week of the WGC-Cadillac Championship, as well as for three days prior to the Shell Houston Open.

"I just love playing there and there's a few courses in the world that I get excited just to go play," Mickelson said. "And we get to play the best courses in the world in the best condition and huge events. But Augusta National and maybe a Cypress Point, a St. Andrews, courses that I have this genuine love for, I get excited the night before just to go play.

"I try to go as much as I can to Augusta beforehand. It gets me excited to practice and work hard."

There wasn't a lot of that going on here Sunday. Things were pretty casual. A nice, warm day to soak in the sunshine and the atmosphere at Augusta National, where the golf world is about to come alive.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.