New to Augusta and most fans Henninger thrives on competition THE MASTERS


AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Not many people knew Tom Lehman's rags-to-riches saga before he took the lead going into final round of last year's Masters. But most had at least heard of Lehman.

Compared to Brian Henninger, Lehman was nearly Jack Nicklaus.

A third-year player on the PGA Tour at age 31, a first-time player at the Masters, Henninger burst into America's golf consciousness yesterday at Augusta National.

Whether he will burst into flames today remains to be seen. Even Henninger, who didn't take up the game until high school and went to Southern Cal as a walk-on, isn't quite sure.

But he knows one thing.

"I'm not afraid to compete," said Henninger, whose 4-under-par 68 tied him with veteran and former Masters champion Ben Crenshaw for a share of the lead at 10-under 206. "I'll be nervous and excited, but I love to compete more than anything."

Henninger qualified for the Masters by winning the 36-hole rain-shorted Deposit Guaranty Classic last year, but it was his second-place tie at the BellSouth Classic that made him believe he could survive on the PGA Tour.

"I eagled the last hole, and it proved a lot to me," said Henninger, who wound up 63rd on the money list with $294,075 in earnings.

Henninger's debut at Augusta did not get off to an overwhelming start. He bogeyed four of the first five holes before a birdie at No. 6 on Thursday helped "take away the nerves." Henninger has played the last 48 holes in 14-under par.

What seems remarkable to Henninger is that he is here in the first place. He wasn't sure if he would be invited, since the tournament he won had only been sanctioned as a regular PGA && event for the first time. Then there was the question of only playing 36 holes.

"Someone would ask, 'Have you heard from the Masters?" Henninger said. "Then they'd ask again. I was like, 'Should I have? I got the invitation late last summer and framed it.' "

Henninger is not only getting to live out a fantasy, but a lifetime of memories that come from watching the Masters. When he holed out a "50- to 60-foot putt" for birdie on the par-3 16th hole to move to 10 under, Henninger thought of only one person: Nicklaus.

"He's made so many great putts there over the years, I felt his presence," said Henninger.

Not a lasting mark

If you didn't check the time or the leader board yesterday morning at Augusta National, you never would have known the difference. The huge gallery was there, ready to see Nicklaus tee off.

If you didn't know club member Danny Yates Jr. from some unknown playing in the Masters, you never would have realized that the tournament's only six-time champion was playing with a non-competing marker.

Nicklaus barely seem to notice himself.

"I have done it several times, quite a few times," Nicklaus said later, after a 2-under-par 70 left him at 1-under 215 for the tournament and seven shots off the lead. "One time at a Memorial Tournament, I played with Jackie [his son]."

But never here, in 37 Masters.

And only once before at a major.

"I was paired in my first British Open [1962] with a marker the first two years," said Nicklaus. "I was the U.S. Open champion, went to the British Open, and the U.S. Open was an addition to the field in those days, and we still had to qualify. Here I was, teeing off last with a marker, U.S. Open champion. How is that?"

How was yesterday?

"Oh, I don't care," he said. "I am never happy playing by the marker, because you play off first. If you're playing last in the field and somebody gets sick, then I don't mind."

It's been a strange week for Nicklaus. There was the opening-round 67 that included holing out on the par-5 fifth hole for eagle. On Friday, he bogeyed four of the first five holes and wound up with 78. Yesterday he holed out again at No. 5, this time from 163 yards.

Until this year, there had been only six eagles on that hole in the first 58 Masters. Now Nicklaus added two more -- the first time that's ever been done in the same week by the same player -- giving him an unofficial record 21 for his career.

Asked what he does with the crystal goblets he has received for them at Augusta, Nicklaus said: "I give them to [wife] Barbara to do what she wants. I don't know where they are."

Running into trouble

The latest player dubbed the next Nicklaus -- U.S. Amateur champion Tiger Woods -- had his first poor round at Augusta. After shooting even par the first two rounds, Woods struggled to a 5-over 77. Woods was 2-under through his first three holes and 1-under through six, but four straight bogeys proved his downfall.

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