BOSTON — The Masters Tournament, like its tennis counterpart, Wimbledon, is a pristine green backdrop on which history is written.
Anticipation always fills the magnolia-scented air at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., in April. It may be even thicker than normal this week, as the best male players in the world tee it up today in the first of four rounds (on USA cable, today and Fri.; CBS Sat. and Sun.; check local listings). Among the players to watch:
*Ben Crenshaw defends the title he won last year in an emotional tribute to his departed mentor, Harvey Penick.
*Jack Nicklaus, fresh from an impressive triumph in last week's Tradition seniors tournament in Arizona, seeks to retain his golden glow.
*Greg Norman, who has never won the Masters or US Open despite being one of the best shotmakers of his era, continues his quest for the elusive green winner's jacket.
*Golfers from other lands look to reinstate the "Foreign Legion's" dominance. Texan Crenshaw interrupted it last year, but in six of seven previous Masters, golfers from England, Wales, Germany, and Spain won. Colin Montgomerie, a slimmed-down Scotsman, has a shot, as do South Africa's Ernie Els and two-time champion Nick Faldo.
*Lefty Phil Mickelson is poised for a big breakthrough. Golf Digest picks him to lead the game's "new wave."
Underdogs abound, with four players fresh from their first tour wins. The leading Cinderfella is Paul Stankowski, who earned a spot in the Masters by triumphing at last weekend's BellSouth Classic, becoming the first player to win on the minor-league circuit one week and on the PGA Tour the next.
*Finally, there is golf's estimable amateur, Tiger Woods, a Stanford University sophomore who has cut class to display his class. (Last year he wrote a thank-you note to the tournament after his first Masters appearance.)
The two-time defending US Amateur champion recently spoke with the Monitor in Orlando, Fla., where he was a finalist for the Sullivan Award, presented to the nation's top amateur athlete.
Decked out in a tuxedo, he was momentarily far removed from college life, a life that quite agrees with him. He intends to finish school before turning pro. "There's no reason to leave," he says. "I'm having a good time."
An economics major, he indicated that his recent classwork, heavy on math but light on writing papers, was allowing him to practice golf more.
In his '95 Masters debut, Woods awed the galleries with his huge drives and showed his characteristic poise in making the two-round cut (the only amateur to do so). He tied for 41st.
"The atmosphere didn't bother me last year," he says. "What bothered me was that I wasn't swinging well and was knocking the ball over the green, leaving myself in some pretty precarious positions. This year I'm hitting the ball better and just have to stay below the hole [at Augusta]," where slick greens make downhill putts treacherous.