New fast greens poised to nip at Masters players

Horror stories about the speed of the greens in the old Masters tournaments are legend. Sam Snead claims he used to yell "Whoa" before he hit a putt. Ben Hogan says you could hear the ball roll across the crusty grass. Jimmy Demaret recalls chipping the ball on the green rather than putting it --the better to get it to stop.

In recent years the greens have been slower, losing much of their terror. The best players, including five-time champion Jack Nicklaus, lamented the change.

So now Augusta National has converted the Masters greens from Bermuda and rye grasses to bent grass in an attempt to restore their intimidating qualities of yesteryear, and this week's renewal of the grand old championship will be watched with even more interest than usual to see the effect.

Nicklaus, for one, is delighted.

"Faster greens will make the entire course a better test," says the reigning US Open and PGA king. "You'll have to position your tee shots more precisely so you can play more sophisticated approach shots. Getting the ball close to the hole will be a real priority."

Tom Watson, Player of the Year for the past four seasons, also favors the switch.

"The scores will be much higher," he said on the eve of the four-day, 72-hole test which begins today and winds up Sunday. "But I don't mind because fast greens put a premium on accuracy. Take the ninth hole for example. If you leave the ball above the hole with your second shot and have to putt back downhill you could send the ball clear off the front of the green. It's happened in the past.

"You simply will have to make an excellent approach shot that stops beneath the hole. That isn't easy when you consider you're hitting a middle iron from a downhill lie to an uphill green."

Ben Crenshaw, still looking for his first major title, is arguably the finest putter in the game. What does he think of the new greens?

"I prefer faster greens because I'm a good approach putter. Fast greens require better reading and more touch, and therefore they favor the better putters.

"I fell putting should be weighted more heavily than it usually is in our week-to-week events. After all, on a regulation par-four hole you are supposed to take two putts to make par. If half your strokes are on the green, you should have to work for those two shots.

"At Augusta, the greens are very undulating too, which akes the added speed all the more frightening. The undulations will be much more severe now."

Crenshaw will not adjust his putting stroke at Augusta this year, but he has a secret weapon ready for the new greens.

"If they get extremely fast, I'll try to hit the ball a little bit more toward the toe of the putter. That seems to give me a better hit."

Johnny Miller, whose two-victory comeback is the story of the year thus far, looks forward to the new greens for another reason.

"The club experimented with the bent grass last year over on the par three course," he said, "and I won the Wednesday par three tournament. Maybe that's a good sign.

"The greens the last four or five years were not Augusta. When I first played here, they were off the charts. I mean, if you didn't use your head, you could putt a 20-footer a good 15 feet by the hole.

"That's what made the course interesting to me. Some people say it isn't fair, but I like the kind of excitement that keeps you alert. You shouldn't just be able to throw an iron shot anywhere onto a green and have a good run at birdie. You should have to use your head and maneuver the ball into the right part of the green to set up a certain type of putt.

I'm really up for the Masters this year. Playing the Masters in unpredictable though. You have to get a couple of good breaks at the right time to win. Playing the little 12th hole, for instance, you don't want the swirling wind to come up at the wrong time and knock your ball into the water. Some years the breaks go in your favor, and some years they don't, and the worse thing you can do at Augusta is try to make victory happen. You have to just keep plugging away and hope one of these years the green jacket's yours."

Seve Ballesteros of Spain was the one who got to wear it last year, but he's only been in the United States a few weeks in preparation for this year's renewal, and so far has not been in top form. This is just one of the reasons that guessing a winner appears more difficult that it's ever been.

This past winter, unlike other recent ones, the tour has been dominated by proven veterans like Miller, Bruce Lietzke, Hale Irwin, Tom Kite, David Graham, Andy Bean, and Raymond Floyd, who co-holds the Masters scoring record of 271 with Nicklaus. To date in 1981 there has been only one first-time winner, John Cook. Where have all the new faces gone? They've been eclipsed by a bunch of determined old pros.

The combination of new faster greens and a confident starring cast could make this Masters one of the most exhilarating renewals of the year's first major championship

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