AUGUSTA, Ga. - Ever since the refurbishing was finished three years ago, Augusta National has been more mud hole than masterpiece in mid-April, drenched by torrential rains and stenched by a healthy dose of fertilizer.
The stink caused last year by Martha Burk and her not-so-merry band of protesters was mild compared with the odor that permeated these hallowed grounds for most of the tournament.
This year, the sights, sounds and smells of the 68th Masters, which begins today, are not quite the same.
And, for the first time in at least five years, no clear favorite. At least nobody is handing Tiger Woods his fourth green jacket before the first ball is struck.
The dry, warm weather, which is expected to continue into the weekend, has tournament chairman Hootie Johnson looking forward to the course playing as he envisioned when architect Tom Fazio gave it more teeth in 2001.
"This is what we've been looking for," Johnson said yesterday.
This is also what the rest of the field has been looking for: Woods coming in as a mere mortal, evidenced by his recent finishes at The Players Championship (tie for 16th) and Bay Hill (tie for 46th, his worst showing in five years).
The fast, tough conditions and the recent struggles of the world's best player has seemingly turned the Masters into an Open.
"All of a sudden we've got Adam Scott [who won The Players Championship] and you can probably name a half a dozen other players that have come in here in the last couple of years that have probably given Tiger a pretty good run," six-time champion Jack Nicklaus said yesterday. "I definitely think the tournament is more open today.
Or is it?
Asked Tuesday if more or fewer players have a chance given the way the course was playing, Woods, 28, said: "Probably fewer guys. You've got to hit the ball well here, and your short game has to be on."
Not many parts of Woods' game have been on this year. Even in his lone victory, at the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship in late February, Woods was spraying his drives.
"It's great that you can trust your swing all you want on the range," said Woods, who had a hole in one during the par-3 tournament yesterday. "It's not that hard. It's no big deal. But you add a little wind, a little water or tucked pins, and you have to feed the ball with the correct spin, and it becomes a lot more challenging."
Woods isn't the only big-name player who has failed to cash huge paychecks lately.
Since finishing second at the season-opening Mercedes Championships, winning at Pebble Beach and tying for third in Phoenix, 2000 Masters champion Vijay Singh missed the cut in San Diego and hasn't been in the top 10 in four other events.
Since winning the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic - his first win in two years - perennial groomsman Phil Mickelson has done what he does best: come close, including a tie for third at The Players.
"I never felt as an amateur, as much as I wanted to win it, that it was life and death," said Mickelson, 33, who is still seeking the first major championship of an otherwise successful career.
"I feel for my career, for me to feel good about my career, for me to be 55, 60 coming back to this place, I need to win it. If I'm able to win it, I want to come back every year and soak it in."
Like legends Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus do now.
Palmer, 74, will play in his 50th straight Masters, two years after announcing that 2002 would be his last. Palmer, a four-time champion here, says this will be his last trip up Magnolia Lane.
"I know exactly how I want Friday to unfold, no question," said Palmer, who hasn't made the cut here since 1982. "I want to see where my starting time is on Saturday."
Nicklaus, 64, missed playing here two years ago because of a back injury that later forced him to withdraw from the Senior Open in Baltimore. He missed the cut last year but is here, and relatively healthy. Nicklaus has been in contention here as recently as 1998, when he finished tied for sixth.
"I don't play golf tournaments to finish sixth," he said. "I play golf tournaments to win and, if I win, I like the walk up the 18th hole and enjoy it."
It's a feeling that Woods hasn't had much lately, particularly in majors. After winning seven of 11 majors between the 1999 PGA and 2002 U.S. Open, Woods has gone six straight without a victory.
"Some other player has a bad week, missed the cut, it's no big deal," said Woods, who still holds the PGA Tour record of making the cut in 120 straight events. "Whereas if I shoot one bad round, it's a little bit different."
Perhaps the biggest change - aside from 36 trees planted on last year's most difficult hole, the par-4 11th hole, and a new playoff format that would include only the par-4 18th and 10th holes - is the fact that golf and not club politics is the main topic of conversation.
Burk's fight to get Augusta National to open its membership to women might have quieted, but that doesn't mean Burk is being asked less about the latest battle involving her National Council of Women's Organizations.
Asked yesterday how he felt about Burk's attempt to call attention to major corporations run by club members, Johnson said: "I really think the American public is ready for us to talk about golf. Our golf course is in the best condition it's ever been."
Johnson is excited about the greens.
"As I've historically said, we have them right where we want them," said Johnson.
It could make this year's tournament a masterpiece rather than the hallowed mud hole it has been the past two years.
Five players who can win this year at Augusta
After three consecutive third-place finishes, "Lefty" could become the second straight left-hander to conquer Augusta - which also would be his first major.
Has finished no worse than a tie for sixth the past four years, including second to Vijay Singh in 2000. Long and strong, he still has a great touch around the greens.
His recent victory at The Players Championship puts the 23-year-old Australian on a new plane, and two solid Masters finishes should give him confidence.
Don't rule out the 33-year-old Canadian repeating as champion, though he comes in having not played well since winning this year's Nissan Open.
Even dynasties have their slumps, but a win this week would definitely end whatever the world's No. 1 player is going through.
At a glance
When: Today through Sunday
Where: Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club
Course: Par 72, 7,290 yards
Today's TV: USA Network, 4 p.m. (live) and 8 p.m. (tape)
Defending champion: Mike Weir
Today's tee times
8 a.m.: Tommy Aaron, Charles Coody, Sandy Lyle 8:11 a.m.: Fred Funk, Peter Lonard, Jonathan Kaye 8:22 a.m.: Chris DiMarco, Justin Rose, Rocco Mediate 8:33 a.m.: Gary Player, Ben Crenshaw, Larry Mize 8:44 a.m.: Tom Watson, a-Gary Wolstenholme, Briny Baird
8:55 a.m.: Rich Beem, Jerry Kelly, Paul Lawrie 9:06 a.m.: Nick Faldo, Scott Verplank, Angel Cabrera 9:17 a.m.: Fred Couples, a-Brandt Snedeker, David Toms 9:28 a.m.: Ben Curtis, Michael Campbell, Fredrik Jacobson 9:39 a.m.: Arnold Palmer, a-Nathan Smith, Bob Estes
9:50 a.m.: Shaun Micheel, Jay Haas, Colin Montgomerie 10:01 a.m.: Craig Stadler, Stuart Appleby, Kenny Perry 10:12 a.m.: Phil Mickelson, Shigeki Maruyama, Darren Clarke 10:23 a.m.: Vijay Singh, Padraig Harrington, John Daly 10:34 a.m.: Bernhard Langer, Sergio Garcia, Lian-Wei Zhang
10:56 a.m.: Jonathan Byrd, Craig Parry, Ian Poulter 11:07 a.m.: Chris Riley, Tim Clark, Jeff Maggert 11:18 a.m.: Jeff Sluman, Stephen Leaney, Paul Casey 11:29 a.m.: Brad Faxon, Trevor Immelman, Steve Flesch 11:40 a.m.: Tim Herron, Phillip Price, Bob Tway
11:51 a.m.: Raymond Floyd, Stewart Cink, Craig Perks 12:02 p.m.: Ian Woosnam, Len Mattiace, Todd Hamilton 12:13 p.m.: Fuzzy Zoeller, Kirk Triplett, Eduardo Romero 12:24 p.m.: Nick Price, Charles Howell III, J.L. Lewis 12:35 p.m.: Chad Campbell, Adam Scott, K.J. Choi
12:46 p.m.: Jack Nicklaus, Toshi Izawa, Alex Cejka 12:57 p.m.: Mark O'Meara, Ernie Els, Robert Allenby 1:08 p.m.: Jose Maria Olazabal, Davis Love III, Retief Goosen 1:19 p.m.: Mike Weir, a-Nick Flanagan, Justin Leonard 1:30 p.m.: Tiger Woods, a-Casey Wittenberg, Thomas Bjorn
1:41 p.m.: John Rollins, Brian Davis, Tim Petrovic