Field gives new Augusta long look

AUGUSTA, GA. — AUGUSTA, Ga. -- On a simple white board with Masters-green letters, just an easy stroll from the Augusta National Golf Club entrance, the names of champions and contenders began to appear.

Tiger Woods and Mark O'Meara, the 1998 champion, were practicing with the Masters rookie Sean O'Hair. Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia were taking their swipes together. David Duval was playing alone.


It was the first day of work at the 70th Masters, which begins Thursday, and the golfers were trying to psych themselves up for the 7,445-yard test.

"I feel like even though the course has changed, I've changed as a player, too," said a confident-sounding Luke Donald, who won the Honda Classic last month and finished tied for third at the Masters last year. "I've gotten better since last year, so it shouldn't make too much of a difference."


Charles Howell III, the big-hitting Augusta native who first played Augusta National when he was 10, said the course could be officially classified as a grind.

Howell, who shot 79 from the members' tees when he played as a youngster, logged four rounds here over the Thanksgiving holiday, then seven or eight more around Christmas.

When he stepped up to the new first tee on Monday on a hole stretched 20 yards to top out at 455, Howell said he had one thought.

"My God," he said.

Howell said he had tried to gather information from local caddies to increase his chances of winning his first Masters.

"They always seem to know something," Howell said. "They always show me a new putt or two. 'Hey, hit this putt from here to this flag.'

"You can't explain it with grain, you can't explain it with break, you can't explain it with slope. It will blow your mind what a golf ball will do."

Mostly dry conditions are expected through Friday, but a horn sounded on the course late in the day, signaling lightning in the area. The wind kicked up and the course began to clear out.


After racing past Tiger Woods and everyone else at the Players Championship a week and a half ago, Stephen Ames prepped for the Masters in an unconventional way. Last week, he traveled to the golfing hub of Orlando, Fla., without his golf clubs.

"Disney World for three days, then it was Sea World," Ames said in a telephone interview while vacationing with his wife, Jodi, and sons, Justin, 9, and Ryan, 6. "It was a kid-oriented trip. No golf."

As well as Ames hit the ball at the TPC at Sawgrass, winning by six shots over a deep and talented field, he might not have needed to practice.

Beyond the perennial favorites Woods and Phil Mickelson, who won the BellSouth Classic on Sunday by 13 shots, Ames could be an intriguing choice to break through.

He has had one of the most compelling starts to the 2006 season. In a span of 33 days, Ames had the most one-sided loss of the year, a 9-and-8 defeat to Woods at the Match Play Championship, and the season's most important victory so far, his triumph at the Players Championship.

Along the way, Ames refused to bow at the altar of two golf institutions. After winning the Players Championship, he made Augusta National Golf Club wait, saying he was unsure about playing because he had a two-week family vacation planned in his native Trinidad. (Ames accepted the invitation the next day and opted for a one-week trip to Florida instead.)


At the Match Play Championship, Ames rankled Woods, saying that Woods, the No. 1 player in the world, could be beaten, "especially where he's hitting the ball."

Ames may be the only professional golfer on the planet to make an issue of Woods' driving accuracy on the eve of playing against him.

"I just speak my mind, and I always have," Ames said, reflecting on his tug of Woods' cape.

Ames said he would continue to choose candor over the canned responses of other athletes.

"We have too many people like that," he said.

Ames said he accepted the Masters invitation only after consulting with his family. Jodi, who spent much of 2005 recovering from lung cancer, has scans scheduled for this year to see if the cancer is in remission, Ames said. The entire family will be in Augusta to see if Ames, with a confident, toothy grin, can follow the Players Championship with an even bigger victory at Augusta.


"I love it, and I'm looking forward to it," Ames said of the Masters, in which he finished tied for 45th in his only appearance. "I only have good memories there."