Beauty and the Beast

The azaleas are brighter than ever and, as usual, not a blade of grass is out of place.

Former Masters' champions

Former Masters' champions

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The azaleas are brighter than ever and, as usual, not a blade of grass is out of place.

Anticipation is higher than it has been in years at the Masters, with Tiger Woods a winner again after knee surgery and Padraig Harrington going for a third straight major.

But the buzz at Augusta National has been tempered by three years of more teeth-gnashing than fist-pumping.

Birdies have been replaced by bogeys.

Players are becoming more vocal in their criticism of a course that has produced so much excitement from so many changes over the years. They say it has become too long, too tough.

The cathedral of golf is starting to remind Masters chairman Billy Payne of a concert.

“Criticism hurts a little bit,” Payne said Wednesday. “It’s like when you go to a piano recital of one of your granddaughters and you hear somebody say, ‘Boy, that’s the worst kid I’ve ever seen.’ It hurts your feelings.”

Payne responded by making the course shorter — by 10 yards.

The club also enlarged the tee boxes on the par-4 seventh and par-5 15th, allowing officials to move the tees a little more forward to make the hole play slightly shorter.

Otherwise, a club that tries to control so much can only hope Mother Nature is on its side.

Spring felt like winter two years ago when Zach Johnson became the first Masters champion in more than 50 years to finish over par. A year ago, whipping wind sent Trevor Immelman to a 75, matching the highest final round by a winner.

“This week is an important test,” Payne said. “Since the most recent, substantial changes to the course in 2006, we have not had good weather over the weekend.

“The players have not, in fact, had the opportunity to demonstrate their skills against the competitive test of the course. It looks like we are going to have some pretty good weather this weekend.”

It sure hasn’t started out that way.

Jim Furyk was among the first on the driving range Wednesday morning, and as he walked to the first tee, he was taken aback when a security guard told him he was not allowed to walk on the grass.

It turns out there was a frost delay, although sunshine warmed the course considerably in the afternoon, and it is supposed to get better for the next four days.

Will that be all it takes to bring the roars back to Augusta National? To restore hope that someone who is three shots behind going to the back nine on Sunday still has a chance to win?

Tiger Woods isn’t so sure.

“The golf course has changed quite a bit,” he said. “Your strategy has changed. You don’t go out there looking to shoot super-low rounds because they are not out there anymore, especially with these conditions that we’ve had the last two years.”

How much has it changed?

Woods has been a runner-up the last two years and has broken par only twice, with just one of those rounds in the 60s.

But it’s more than the 510 yards that were added to the course since Woods captured his first green jacket in 1997.

Augusta National used to mow one half of the fairway toward the green and the other half toward the tee. It was advantageous — and risky — to hit the side of the fairway mowed toward the green because the ball would roll more.

Now the entire fairway is mowed toward the tee.

Then there is that infamous second cut of rough, certainly not much, but enough for players to lose some control of the spin.

Payne believes the changes, courtesy of former chairman Hootie Johnson, will be proven correct in years to come. He just needs some good weather to state his case.

Phil Mickelson is among those who believe him.

Lefty won his first Masters by making five birdies over the last seven holes in a memorable duel with Ernie Els, perhaps the best shootout Augusta National has seen this decade.

Mickelson was responsible for some of the changes.

Johnson was down at Amen Corner in 2001 when Mickelson hammered a tee shot on the 11th hole.

The former chairman ducked under the ropes, checked out the yardage on a sprinkler head and saw that Mickelson only had 94 yards left to the green. On the final hole of the tournament, Woods hit a lob wedge into the 18th green.

Those days are gone, but Mickelson can see a compromise.

“It’s very hard to mount a charge when it’s cold and windy,” he said. “But I don’t think that was due to the changes in the course. I think it was more due to the conditions that we were facing.

“The forecast is to be warm and sunny. In that case, the course will play … much shorter than we saw the last couple of years. And we will see some reasonably low scoring, I believe.”

Mickelson has reason for such optimism. He has made two trips to Augusta National in the weeks leading up to the Masters, and it was warm during one of those practice rounds, with moderate wind.

“I was able to hit the same clubs into the par 4s and par 5s that I did back in the early 90s,” he said.

That might be what Augusta National needs to restore some of its magic.

The first Canadian to tee off today will be Stephen Ames of Calgary at 9:28 a.m. His playing partners will be Gary Player and Luke Donald. Mike Weir of Bright’s Grove, Ont., tees off at 10:34 a.m. with Ryuji Imada and Padraig Harrington.

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