Unlike spring, Masters golf is sure to please

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

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.

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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.

Indeed, there's a wall of evidence that Duval is on the brink of becoming a giant of sweeping proportion. He led the tour in wins in 1998 with four; in late January he shot a 59, the lowest score ever registered on the PGA tour in a final round; he is best on the tour in seven statistical categories this year, among them scoring and putting; he has won 11 out of his last 34 tournaments and has won the last two weeks in a row.

A serious question, however, is whether the strain of recent winning weeks will have him too beat to beat all his colleagues again in Augusta. Or will he be overflowing with unbeatable confidence and unshakable can-do?

Two other top pros, with plenty of game to subdue Duval, also are playing exceptionally well on Masters eve: Davis Love III and Tiger Woods.

Love, whose late father was a top pro, has been second twice this year and third another time. What prompts a serious look at Love is that he already has won a major title, the PGA Championship in 1997. He clearly has the nerves to cope with the numbing pressures of the big tournaments, proved by the fact that in his last 16 major tournaments, he has finished in the top 20 in 10 of them.

But there's zero question that if Woods can get it going and keep it going over the next four days, the excitement will be at a fever pitch. He generates delirium previously produced by only one other player in the history of the game: Arnold Palmer. Woods didn't even turn pro until 1996, and he already has eight wins, including the blazing Masters triumph in 1997.

Blazing? It was way beyond that. Not only did Woods bring proud Augusta to its knees with the lowest four-round score ever (270), but he did the same to his opponents, his 12-shot winning margin being the largest ever. Along the way, he set 20 Masters records and tied six others.

TV would love Tiger to burn bright

Talk erupted that maybe Augusta National would have to be Tiger-proofed. If not, suggested alarmists, he might win 5, 10, 15 times in a row. They, of course, underestimated the bounce-back ability of Augusta. Last year, Woods tied for eighth and shot a much more Masters-like 285.

O'Meara, pal and Florida neighbor of Woods, says, "I think anywhere Tiger goes, everybody loves to come and watch him play." Television, of course, would love for Sunday's final round to be all Tiger all the time.

Jack Nicklaus has gone around the bend on Woods, saying that "he will win more majors than Arnold Palmer and me combined." That would require Woods to win at least 26 majors. That is nonsense.

Still, just to be sure that neither Tiger nor any Tiger wannabes hold Augusta up to further ridicule, several holes have been lengthened by 20 to 25 yards and some trees have been added. Fairway mounds on the 15th that boosted drive distances have been dramatically reduced.

Woods is appearing more mortal. He won just once in 1998 and once so far this year. Already in 1999 he has finished tied for 53rd and 56th in two of his tournaments. But he arrives at the Masters with his grand game seemingly at a high level and says he thinks his chances are "pretty good this year." Woods reports both progress and improvements in his play, a scary thought to his wary competitors.

Also in the upper echelon these days are Fiji's Vijah Singh, who is driving long and straight, and always-composed Ernie Els, twice the US Open champ.

Of course, there's every chance that none of these players will win. That's because, as writer and golf pro Gary Wiren wrote, "The objective of golf is simple, but the game of golf is complex." And very fickle.

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