All's right with the Masters

Robert Browning had no premonition of a Masters golf tournament when he wrote that lyrical verse a century or so ago, but he could have been characterizing the annual aura here at the Augusta National Golf Club, site of the year's first major championship.

Spring may have begun March 20 on the calendar, but in the hearts of golfers and golf fans everywhere it commences with the verdant week of April and the first shot of this sociable gathering bequeathed to the game by the legendary Bob Jones. It starts with the Masters and its unique blend of professionals and amateurs, domestic and foreign.

The Masters is the youngest of the four true major championships -- the US Open, the British Open, and the PGA Championship all started earlier -- but it exudes the most tradition of any tournament in this country, thanks to its permanent location, its superior attention to detail, and its happy location on the schedule. The Masters blooms each spring simultaneously with the azaleas, the dogwood, and dozens of other fetching flora and fauna on this rolling Georgia acreage.

Seldom sinc ethe Masters began in 1934 has there been a more interesting buildup than this year, when jack Nicklaus has mastered a comeback and lost a flaming playoff to Raymond Floyd, when Tom Watson has kept winning with more consistency than anyone else, when Johnny Miller almost miraculously is back on his game, and when laugh-a- minute veteran Lee Trevino held off Nicklaus, Watson , Ben Crenshaw, and Gary Player to win the fast-growing Tournament Players Championship. The big names are playing big golf, and that should make for an exciting weekend amid the fragrantly scented Southern pines,

Whom do you like?

If you have to pick one man from among all these greats, the logical choice is Watson -- both for practical and aesthetic reasons.

"Picking Watson to win is practical simply because since 1977 he has been the world's best player," the magazine golf Digest reasons. "For three straight years he has won more money and more tournaments than anyone else, and has had the lowest scoring average. His intelligent, controlled game exactly suits the subtly demanding challenges of the Augusta National course.

"In addition, Watson's image exactly fits Augusta National's just-right atmosphere, and he looks great in his green jacket -- the one he got for winning the 1977 Masters."

Other top contenders are British Open champ Seve Ballesteros of spain, making one of his rare US showings, and then nicklaus and US Open defender Hale Irwin.

Nicklaus, who has revamped every phase of his game this season in an ail-out effort to regain his supremacy, has been targeting on the Masters for months. It could be the key to his year -- if not the rest of his career.

He missed last April's three-way playoff here by a stroke, and he has won the Masters a record five times. There is no doubt he knows what to expect from the course.

"They always hide the pins in more difficult places here than anyplace else we play," he says. "Most of the pins will be positioned so that you should never get on the low side of the hole with your approach shot. If you can't risk getting on the low side, you'll be putting down a slope, which makes it very, very awkward once the greens are cut down later on.

"This course requires that you use your head. It requires that you be aggressive when you can be aggressive and be conservative when you have to be -- when the pins are tucked away. You just have to learn to live with that, because that's a big part of what makes it a great tournament. the course will yield when you really go after it and hit good shots, but it will bite you if you miss."

So demanding is the course, it always was assumed that a first-time competitor had no chance to win here. That myth ended last year, though, when long-driving Fuzzy Zoeller beat Watson and Ed Sneed in a playoff in his first Masters.

Zoeller hasn't done much since, but has been playing better in recent weeks. "I tossed my putter up in the air when I sank the winning putt on the 11th green , and I guess it went so high it got chilled, because it hasn't worked well since," he says.

If you like a long shot this time, go for Craig Stadler, the year's only double winner except for Watson. The roly-poly Stadler has won once with a beard and once without, and he's a big man with gentle touch.

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