Mother Nature toying with Augusta

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Phil Mickelson comes to the Masters every year full of information about the Augusta National Golf Club. By the time he tees off on Thursday, the 41-year-old three-time Masters champion has studied every foot of the par-72, 7,435-yard Alister Mackenzie-designed course. He's hit every approach from every possible angle into every possible pin location. He's prepared himself for a fast and firm golf course that will bring out all of Augusta's delicate nuances.

But then comes Mother Nature to thwart his best-laid plans. Over the past two days, the golf course has received 2½ inches of rain, which has softened the greens and fairways. More rain is expected on Thursday and Friday.

"It seems that some of the planning I have made may go by the wayside," Mickelson said on Tuesday. "As soft as the golf course is, you can fire at a lot of the pins. The greens are soft. I don't want to say they are slow, but it's just not the same Augusta."

If it's wet, a long hitter can the throw the ball straight at pins, whereas on a firmer golf course he would have to hit his approach shots closer to the middle of the greens and try to use the slope to feed the ball to the hole. But with longer approach shots into the greens, due to lack of rollout in the fairway because of the softness, players will be hitting longer irons into the greens, which won't allow them to be as aggressive in some of the pins.

Chez Reavie told me that he had an almost 1 to 2 club difference on almost every hole Wednesday as compared to Tuesday because of the softness of the course.

"When the subtleties don't come out, the experience of playing here in the past is not as important, because you don't have to fear the greens and you don't have to know where the ball will end up and you don't have to fear certain shots because you can get up and down from the edges," Mickelson said. "Those shots are not as hard.

"Therefore, I think there's a very good chance that a young player, inexperienced, fearless player that attacks this golf course can win if you don't need to show it the proper respect."

Almost no major championship golf course ever plays to its maximum strength. Course superintendents and competition committees never plan for a course to play soft and wet. Last June, the Congressional Country Club was widely derided for not being U.S. Open worthy after Rory McIlroy finished with a 16-under-par total, but rain made that course very susceptible to low scores.

"Being a mid-length hitter, you want to see this course play as fast as possible," Jim Furyk said on Wednesday. "The softer and wetter it gets the more it favors the long hitters. You have to adjust to any conditions, but if I had my druthers I definitely want the rain to stay away."

Yet medium to short hitters have won here when the course played softer and longer: Mike Weir ('03), Zach Johnson ('07) and Trevor Immelman ('08).

"I think the short hitter is going to have to max out to compete this year," Sean O'Hair said. "But a guy like Zach Johnson can make up for it with a great short game."

On Wednesday, O'Hair played for the second straight day in a practice round with Tiger Woods, who he said is playing well. O'Hair also added that he's never seen a golf course change so much from day to day.

"In the past, the course seems different from Wednesday afternoon to Thursday morning," O'Hair said.

On Wednesday, Fred Ridley, the chairman of the Masters competition committee, said he couldn't ever remember a time when the tournament resorted to lift-clean-and-place. And that trend is not likely to be bucked this week.

While Mickelson is unhappy with how the rains have dampened the impact of his reconnaissance missions to the course, he along with Tiger and McIlroy are still the favorites. Sure it would be nice to have Augusta play fast and firm to bring out all of its devilish ways, but it will still be a tough test of golf. But Phil's wrong, Augusta will get its "proper respect" because the pressure of winning a green jacket will bring out the best players, no matter how much it rains.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.