Just walked Augusta National for the last time before the tourney starts. When covering golf, I try to walk at least 18 holes a day.
It's remarkably hilly. I'm in decent shape, and walking the course leaves me a sweaty mess with shin splints.
I think it's important to see the course as the players see it. In golf as in other sports, television makes the game look far easier than it really is. In baseball, players call it the ``dirt rule.'' The closer you are to the infield dirt, the harder the game becomes.
I've covered The Masters a handful of times since 2005, and, to me, the course looks more beautiful than ever. On the Golf Channel, David Feherty said he was ``gobsmacked'' when he first saw Augusta National, and I felt the same way my first time here.
What's amazing is, I feel that way every time I see the course.
As I was walking back to the media building today, I heard fans using words like ``magical'' and ``experience of a lifetime.'' A group of fans, or as they call them here, ``Patrons,'' sat on the grass between the first and ninth fairways. There were no players on the course. They were just looking at the ninth green and the landscaping.
This place has that effect on people.
There are no weeds. There are areas of the course that will never make it onto TV, like the land beside the second fairway, that would put any arboretum to shame. As I was walking on a path paralleling the 11th fairway, a worker was raking pine straw on a path that will never be seen by TV camera or golf ball this week.
The course is beautifully set up, as well. The Masters has succeeded in becoming, or reverting to, a risk-reward course demanding elegant shot-making and imagination.
It is not coincidental that some of the greatest shots in recent history here have involved trees. Bubba Watson won the tournament last year with an improbable hooked sand wedge from the woods, and Phil Mickelon's greatest shot in his brilliant Masters career came from behind a tree on the 13th.
If I could watch only five holes here for aesthetic purposes, I'd choose 10, 11, 12, 13 and 16. Amen Corner, Butler Cabin and that place where Tiger hit that chip.
No. 10 starts near the clubhouse and sweeps past Butler and the other cabins, down a steep hill, forcing a shot off a downhill lie to an elevated green. It's a beautiful introduction to the back nine and a deceptively difficult hole.
No. 11 has become the most difficult and intimidating hole on the course, a 505-yard par-4 requiring a long, precise drive. The approach begins a series of risk-reward shots that can decide the tournament.
The approach on 11 requires either a gutsy attempt over water or a bail-out to the right that forces a risky chip.
No. 12, the par-3 over Rae's Creek, si evidence that golf holes need not be of monstrous length to challenge the pros. It can play at less than 140 yards, but the kidney-shaped green punishes anything short right or long left, the most common misses for a righthanded golfer, and the winds are tricky.
No. 13 is the most beautiful hole on the course. The golfer must decide whether to wrap a right-to-left tee shot around the corner or lay up, losing a chance at going at the green in two. Even a good tee shot leaves an uneven lie on a shot to a severely sloped green guarded by water. No. 13 is where you get a glimpse of the way Augusta is landscaped.
No. 16 is a middling par-3 with a sloped green, guarded by water in front and bunkers all around.
I know better than most that you should never miss a shot at 16 if you can help it. In 2005, Tiger Woods made his improbable chip-in that hung on the edge of the hole before falling in. On a course known for roars, that was the loudest roar I ever heard.
I was about 100 yards away. I had just left the 16th to get in position at the 18th green. I vowed never again to leave Woods out of my sight when he was in contention on Sunday. That proved to be a good strategy when I walked four days with him and his shredded knee at Torrey Pines during the 2008 U.S. Open.
Who do I like to win this week?
It's silly to pick just one golfer. Even when Tiger was dominant, he won about a quarter of the majors in which he competed.
Here are a few I like this week:
-Keegan Bradley is a star in the making. He hits it high and long and embraces pressure.
-Rory McIlroy is going to win a Masters someday. Why not now, that he's adjust to his new clubs and is coming off a strong finish?
-Phil Mickelson always plays well here, and he's found a driver he likes.
-Ian Poulter showed how talented and gutsy he is at the Ryder Cup. Maybe he'll be like other Euros who shine during the Ryder Cup and not at majors, but I think he'll win a major in the next two years.
-Player X. I know, this is a copout. But nobody picked Angel Cabrera, Charl Schwartzel or Trevor Immelman, and they've all won in the last eight years.
-I'll be on 1500ESPN at noon on Thursday and Friday, and from 10-noon on Sunday.
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