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The elusive pot of gold

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Rob Hodgetts | 16:43 UK time, Monday, 5 April 2010

If Augusta's Washington Road is an all-American, neon-lit strip of a rainbow, then the Augusta National Golf Club, hiding just a few hundred yards back behind a tree-lined fence, is the elusive pot of gold.

The world's most iconic course will host the 74th Masters this week amid the buzz generated by the return of the disgraced Tiger Woods. There'll be other stories, too, of course. No man is bigger than the tournament. Only the names change.

But the setting for this slice of golfing heaven couldn't be more ordinary. No out of town rural idyll, this. No meandering approach roads, no gated estates, no buffer zone between the mundane and the magic.

Washington DriveTraffic on Augusta's busy Washington Drive

The incongruity of the Augusta National amid the tarmac and traffic lights of Washington Road is a bit like plonking St Andrews in the middle of Milton Keynes.

Even at 0730 on the Monday of Masters week, vehicles pouring south off Interstate 20 crawl up the hill, past scores of motels, malls, diners and bars such as Hooters and Caddyshack Lounge.

A distinctive water tower gives the first indication of the Augusta National, the site of the old Fruitlands Nurseries upon which the course was built in 1932.

A handful of unaccredited TV crews lurk with satellite trucks in parking lots opposite the course. Colourful pro John Daly - not qualified this year - is already selling merchandise outside his huge brown bus. 'The Wild Thing' looks flustered and pensive and is not for chatting.

The famous entrance is reserved for players and members, the revered Green Jackets.

For a trip down Magnolia Lane to the famous old clubhouse at the end, we can thank England's world number eight Ian Poulter, who filmed it as he arrived for a practice round a few weeks back. "I love this place," he tweeted.

The old practice ground - now deemed too short for the modern pro - was adjacent to Magnolia Lane, hitting back towards Washington Road.

Last year, I watched Padraig Harrington smashing drivers one-handed (left, then right) high into the netting at the back. Now a new facility has been built in the corner of the site, with the water tower as a backdrop.

"The new practice area is one of the coolest things I've seen," said Geoff Ogilvy. "Undulating, real looking greens and fully mature trees. Looks like it has been there forever."

The waiting list for tickets for the four tournament days closed years ago but people can still enter the ballot for practice day badges.

Thousands throng the vast shop, museum and concession stands, all painted an inconspicuous Masters green, before the course opens at 0800.

When the ropes go up, some patrons scuttle off to their favourite parts of the course, but it deserves a few moments to take in the treasure laid out before you.

The towering trees, sparkling greens, knockout punches of attention-seeking azaleas, brilliant white sand. A serene, genteel and distinguished country club air in the warm Georgian spring sunshine.

And a course with just the right amount of devil and a glint in her eye. "Not only do I look a million dollars, but I bite, too," she might be saying.

Standing outside the clubhouse, the course drops away, the 10th sweeping down to the left, the first across a valley to the right and the ninth and 18th holes climbing back up.

There are no advertising hoardings, no grandstands to be seen from up here, no cranes peering high overhead.

The Masters represents many things to golfers and non-golfers alike.

For those of us still trying to shake off the last ravages of winter, it seems like the promised land, a hint of better things to come.

The fact that it is the only one of the year's four majors to be played on the same course every year means the history piles up.

And the strict rationing of TV coverage by club officials means it retains a mystique, the classic "treat 'em mean, keep' em keen approach".

rob2_595.jpgJohn Daly sells merchandise outside his huge brown bus

For many European golfers, a late night TV vigil four days a year is the only fix available.

How many of us as kids have had at least one night's viewing cut short by sleep-obsessed parents pointing up to bed?

Chatting about the Masters in the office, we wondered how much cash we'd be willing to stump up to play Augusta. A couple of hundred quid? A grand? More?

Or how about this one: would you choose to play a round at your local course with Tiger Woods as your partner (or another pro of your choice), or a game at Augusta on your own?

Interestingly, I asked BBC commentator Ken Brown how many holes from Augusta he would pick for his fantasy course. Only the 13th came the reply, and possibly the third, which would suggest that Augusta's allure is far more than just the sum of her parts.

"It's my favourite golf course in the world and my favourite tournament in the world," said Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, back for a second time after finishing 20th last year.

Last year, the pre-tournament talk was of how the Masters had lost its magic and how the roars that once ricocheted around the pines as putts dropped and birdies were blitzed were a thing of the past.

Par was at a premium. Zach Johnson won in 2007 with the joint highest four-round total of 289, while Trevor Immelman's final round of 75 the following year was the highest by a champion.

The extension of the course in 2006 and the unfortunate coincidence of two years of cold and windy weather were blamed.

Perhaps mindful of this, the Green Jackets set up the course sympathetically 12 months ago, and the roars returned in the final round as Phil Mickelson and Woods went head-to-head as they closed on the leaders.

Tiger WoodsThe Masters will be the first tournament of the year for Tiger Woods

The pair ultimately fell short, as Argentine Angel Cabrera triumphed in a play-off with Kenny Perry, at 48 bidding to become the oldest winner, and Chad Campbell.

The buzz had returned, and with it the realisation that Augusta is not just a domain for modern musclemen, as many feared it had become.

Last year, the final-round stats showed Cabrera was long and ranked ninth in driving distance (296.5 yards average) but only ranked 33rd in accuracy, 27th in greens in regulation and 20th for putts.

Augusta is still a brute at 7,435 yards long but shotmakers and short-game wizards can still prosper.

Spotting Jim Furyk's caddie, the veteran Mike 'Fluff' Cowan, who carried Woods's bag to victory in his first Masters in 1997, I asked him what sort of player you have to be to win at Augusta.

"All kinds of guys have won here over the years. Short hitters, long hitters. You've just to play good. It's the guy who plays the best. Same as it is every week," he growled through that yellowing moustache.

"Augusta is a lot about local knowledge, the more you know it the better you'll play there," added McIlroy.

He's right - on average it takes six attempts before a first win.

While Woods is after his fifth victory here, Britain is hoping for a first winner since Nick Faldo in 1996 and the resurgent Ernie Els is still chasing a maiden victory at Augusta.

Everyone will have a tale to tell. For whoever wins, a Masters Green Jacket will certainly feel like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

If there's anything you'd like to know about Augusta or the Masters, don't hesitate to get in touch. You can also follow me on Twitter all week from the Masters at Augusta National.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Good stuff! Bet you stocked up on John Daly's souvenirs.
    Clock-on-the-bock time, Rob. I see you haven't entered goldwolf's 606 Fantasy Game yet, but who do you fancy?

  • Comment number 2.

    Tigers mistress--the p@@@ star--Joselyn James is going to be watching his press conference live according the the CNN HLN Show "Issues." They are going to monitor his words and her reaction. That girl is getting more and more bizarre so it should be interesting. Jane Velez-Mitchell (the host of "Issues") didn't hold back on her last time she was on the show--saying "What do you want? What do you WANT?!"

  • Comment number 3.

    This year should be great, wonderful news that Tiger Woods is returning! Of course he will be up there challenging on Sunday, but I fancy an outsider to do something special. I fancy Oliver Wilson might be a good outside bet at 200-1. He spent some time at Augusta State University and will know the course well. He has taken a few weeks off prior to the tournament and will be well prepared. Also think Ross Fisher is a good shout at 70/1, the course suits his game and he generally performs well in the Majors.

  • Comment number 4.

    Hi Kwini,

    I'll get onto Goldwolf's game asap. For now I can reveal a bit of each-way interest last week in Couples. But I just have a feeling this week that we'll have more of a "big-name" winner. And that name is Retief Goosen! I'll be doing a round-up with a load of pundits on Wed so we'll see who they all reckon. What do you think?

    Chris,

    Wilson could be over-priced but he's not had a great season and this is a big step up. Fisher could go well but since splitting with coach Kristian Baker his results haven't exactly been stellar.

  • Comment number 5.

    Rob,
    Nice work on yr Tiger article - my comments about the presser posted earlier on Iain's piece.
    You've copied my goldwolf effort! I had Els & Goosen, Donald & Weir, Moore & Freddie!! So that's both of us doomed.
    PS: Oliver Wilson seemed very uset at missing the cut last year, might be a bit more relaxed about the whole thing second time around.
    Have a great time.

  • Comment number 6.

    Rob - great article.

    Lots going on, but no side article on the champions dinner? Who's there, who's not, what's the menu?

  • Comment number 7.

    Jordan D - I posted some Champions Dinner stuff on Twitter and there's a bit more in the "Evolution of Masters Man" blog. Cabrera chose Argentine asado (a beef barbecue) with Malbec wine.

 

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