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Georgia on the mind
Rarely has it taken until Masters week for the US Tour to produce a first time winner. Early season produces the best chance for a rookie as most of the big boys favour staying at home ensconced with their mental gurus getting the mind set for the first of the Big Ones.

Ben Crane took full advantage of the situation just down the road from the Augusta National but at a place as remote from the green blazers as Pittenweem Municipal is from Sunningdale. Crane nevertheless did it with some style. After rounds of 73 and 72 on this mediocre Greg Norman designed course, he made the cut by only one shot. But the lad went on to play the last 36 holes in 17 under par with rounds of 64 and 63. It was one of these golden moments for Crane. For two rounds he was touched by a bit of putting magic that climaxed on the last green with a 20-foot eagle putt. He may never experience the like again.

Crane will not be enjoying all the fun of the fair up the road at the Augusta National course but, thankfully, Paul Lawrie will for he has snuck into the Masters field in the last spot of the 'foreign invitees' category. What joy it would generate if the putting muse that lingered over the Augusta environs on the shoulder of Ben Crane alighted on the broad back of Paul Lawrie.

He played well in the BellSouth Classic to take his first top-10 finish of the season in a US Tour event. Lawrie is better prepared for this year's Masters than ever before and with the odds on offer is as good a bet as any for the top European finisher.

Pod Harrington and Darren Clark must also be considered likely contenders to lead the European charge. Both showed form at Sawgrass in the TPC with Pod in particular showing the power of his short game. Clark finished tied for eight place in his Masters debut in '98 and finished in 20th spot last year. He has placed his game in the hands of Butch Harmon and his mind, questionably, in the pocket of Dr Bob Rotella - who is not a sports psychologist but a 'facilitator', by his own definition.

Like Harrington, Clark has the capacity to spray shots all over the golf course yet manage to remain in contention. Augusta, with its broad fairways, can be forgiving of the errant tee shot but unyielding on the ill considered shot to the flag. The second shot requires pin-point accuracy at Augusta otherwise a player can be faced with a precipitous two-hill putt that turns through 90 degrees on a surface like polished mahogany. Harrington has the genius for it but will require packing his brains along with his toothbrush and smalls.

Goosen, Scott and Allenby are all good bets for the leading non-US player spot. The odds on Els are not good considering that he has had a two-week layoff and has clearly not yet recovered from the shock of his start of the season performance.

Few doubt that Tiger will make this year Masters three wins in a row. To Tiger, an unprecedented third consecutive Masters would mean another record book entry. It would further mean that he would join Peter Thomson as the only player in modern times as a triple consecutive major winner. Thomson won the Open in 1954, '55 and '56 and I am sure that he would be glad to have Tiger join him in the pantheon - only Tommy Morris, Jamie Anderson and Bob Ferguson in the 1860's and '70's are the other consecutive triple champions.

There can be no doubting that Woods is already the master of all Masters' Champions. The place was made for his game. He must relish the four par fives, all of which are potential eagles for him. The sparseness of rough or second cut as the 300 members at Augusta grandly refer to the trim grass beneath the trees, poses no danger to Woods whatsoever. All of the doglegs are set square for his long swinging draw and the length of the course itself plays perfectly into his hands.

But it is the touch, and more important the consistent touch, that is required on the greens that gives him the edge at Augusta. Greens that border on the belligerent for most appear simply to challenge the Tiger's mental acuity and he is likely to face that challenge with greater facility this year for his place in the record books than ever before.

A third consecutive green jacket for Tiger will be a Masters landmark but this year's event will almost certainly be remembered for its diplomatic gaffes.

Hootie Johnson has experienced more press coverage this ear than Dolly Parton's bosom. His most recent flurry with the US press concerned his decision to withdraw exemption for past-Masters champions over the age of 65. Arnie's Army was raised to a state of red alert over the issue and Hootie revoked his decision at the eleventh hour to prevent open revolt of the Masters masses.

Possibly a greater hoot was Mr Johnson's calling in a PR monkey to respond to a letter received from Ms Martha Burke, Chairperson of the National Council of Women's' Organizations, protesting at Augusta's absence of lady members. It was a private letter requiring only a private response but the PR guru that handled it opened up a can of worms that have left casts that will need more effort in fairway clearing than even the members of Augusta can muster.

©    8 - APRIL 2003

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