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Unlike spring, Masters golf is sure to please

By Douglas S. Looney Senior sports columnist of The Christian ScienceMonitor / April 8, 1999

There's precious little to commend spring in much of the land.

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After all, it's the most unstable of the four seasons, easily the most unpredictable. It doesn't know, especially in the early going, what it wants to be. It's like a child who flits to and fro with no real focus. Among spring's talents are rain, sun, snow, cold, warmth, wind, calm, and petulance - sometimes all exhibited in a single day.

This is why the exquisite Masters golf tournament, which starts today in Augusta, Ga., is a towering beacon. It is everything that spring is not. It is stable and predictable because it is always excellent; it knows what it wants to be, which is the best golf tournament of the year; it flits nowhere, choosing to focus hard on its singular mission of great golf in the most perfect setting imaginable.

It will all transpire through Sunday - assuming spring weather behaves, a big assumption - more than 365 acres of dignity, nostalgia, azaleas, and magnolias. Augusta National Golf Club is one of the few venues in sport that even generates groveling respect from the players. They speak in hushed tones and reverent terms of the course and tournament as if failure to do so might anger the Masters gods.

Watch Duval, but anything's possible

This year is one of those when it appears a dozen or so players have sound chances. After all, in 14 professional tournaments this year, there have been 11 different winners. Among the victors are Gabriel Hjertstedt, Tim Herron, and Rocco Mediate. Not to hurt anyone's feelings, but who are you guys?

Upsets often are far more possible in individual sports like golf than in team sports. Especially in golf. That's because a golfer who has been unable for months to find his car in the parking lot much less the hole 450 yards distant, suddenly and inexplicably can become the embodiment of Hogan, Snead, Palmer, Nicklaus, Sarazen, and Jones.

Take Mark O'Meara, for example. O'Meara is a superior golfer, third on the all-time money-winning list. But it took him 15 tries before he won the Masters, which finally came last year. It really shouldn't have taken a golfer of his stature 15 times. Asked why, he jokes, "Maybe I'm a late bloomer."

And to get the win, he had to hit a knee-knocking 20-foot putt on the final hole to lift himself past Fred Couples and David Duval. When O'Meara occasionally watches tape of the putt, he says, "I definitely get more goose bumps now than I actually did right after it happened."

So, is the defending champ the overwhelming choice to do it again? Not at all. In fact, there are easily a half-dozen golfers playing better than O'Meara at the moment, perhaps many more. And O'Meara, possibly inadvertently, gives off the attitude that since he finally has won the Masters, winning again would be nice, sure, but the bigger point is he has. As winners who can't repeat have been humming for years, "They can't take that away from me."

The stunningly obvious player to watch - if one subscribes to past being prologue - is Duval. He already has won four times this year while nobody else has triumphed more than once. That's why he's the leading money winner in 1999 with $2.6 million, already a tour record with three-quarters of the year to go.