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2003 promises to be a different kind of Masters

Posted: Sunday, April 06, 2003

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Tiger Woods returns to Augusta National with his size 42-long green jacket, the best game in golf and a parachute.

Inside the gates is another chance to make history.

Outside the gates, there may be chaos.

''It's going to be a joke trying to get into the tournament,'' the two-time defending champion said. ''Maybe I'll try to parachute in.''

Clearly, this is shaping up to be a Masters like no other.

At least two groups plan to protest the all-men membership at Augusta National Golf Club. Others plan to protest against the protesters, including a one-man faction of the Ku Klux Klan who lists Woods as his favorite golfer.

Attention has shifted from the raging colors of spring and the towering Georgia pines to hand-painted picket signs for a protest against an exclusive membership that is no longer secret.

The eyes will not be on who drives through the gates of Magnolia Lane, but whether Martha Burk and her National Council of Women's Organizations marches outside them.

The Masters, which only allowed four minutes of television commercials every hour, will make it even cozier for couch potatoes -- the first commercial-free sporting event on network television.

The honorary starters are gone.

Arnold Palmer is back, and so is Jack Nicklaus.

And in case anyone has forgotten, when play begins Thursday, Woods will try to become the first player to win three straight Masters championships.

''It's become not just about a golf tournament anymore,'' Woods said. ''That's where it's gotten to now. It used to be the first major of the year, and everyone looked forward to that. Now, it's not that anymore, for a number of reasons.''

Players who once spoke of Augusta National in reverential tones now use words like ''zoo'' and ''circus.''

''All the peripheral stuff is going to detract a lot from the tournament,'' Nick Price said. ''It's bad. Maybe Thursday, everything will be forgotten and we'll be on our way. But we're getting away from golf, and that's sad.''

The peripheral stuff can be traced to June 12, when Burk sent Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson a foreboding letter that urged him to open the club's membership to women so that it doesn't become an ''issue'' for the Masters and its sponsors.

Johnson felt threatened and came out swinging.

In a three-page, 932-word statement to the media -- compared with a three-sentence, 69-word letter to Burk -- he predicted an all-out campaign by the NCWO to pressure Augusta National into inviting a female member.

He vowed that the club would act as always -- on its own, with a timetable of its choosing, certainly ''not at the point of a bayonet.''

Suddenly, the Masters became more than green jackets, slick greens, Rae's Creek and Amen Corner. It became a public relations battle between the rights of a private club and the moral obligation of golf's most famous tournament.

Johnson canceled the Masters' television sponsorships to keep advertisers out of the fray. Burk went after CEOs of major corporations who are Augusta members, and two of them resigned.

Nine months later, there is no winner and the stalemate continues.

At least one winner will be declared Sunday evening, and most eyes are on Woods.

Since the tournament began in 1934, only two other players have won the Masters in consecutive years -- Nicklaus (1965-66) and Nick Faldo (1989-90). Neither came close to winning three in a row, Nicklaus missing the cut, Faldo tying for 12th.

Neither dominated their peers quite like Woods.

''He does not have to play his best to win,'' said Nicklaus, who won a record six times. ''I didn't have to play my best to win, either. I thought if I played decent golf, I was going to be hard to beat. If I played well, I didn't think I would get beat.

''I would think he feels the same way.''

Woods certainly knows how to rise to the occasion.

Two years ago, he won the Masters over Phil Mickelson and David Duval to become the first professional to win four straight majors. For an encore in 2002, he built a lead going into the back nine and watched a world-class collection of challengers self-destruct.

''He wants the golf record book to just have one name,'' Faldo said. ''It's as simple as that. I'm sure that's what motivates him -- to be the first one to win three in a row.''

Two months off for knee surgery didn't stop Woods from winning three of his first five tournaments. Even with food poisoning, he won Bay Hill by 11 shots.

Now comes the tournament he has been gearing up for since August.

''It's important to me to win that one,'' Woods said. ''Jack and Nick were the only other guys, so I could put myself in company where no one has been.''

He figures to get some competition from Davis Love III and Ernie Els, both two-time winners on the PGA Tour this year. Mickelson returns from taking a month off while his first son was born.

All of them will be chasing Woods.

''He's superhuman,'' Brad Faxon said. ''We keep hearing Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player say he doesn't have the same sort of competition they had, and I have to laugh. Tiger would have beaten any of those guys.''

Woods gets a crack at all of them in the Masters.

Nicklaus returns to the Masters for the 43rd time under no illusions that a 63-year-old can win. Still, he believes a top-10 finish is not out of the question if he plays well.

Arnie's Army marched alongside Palmer for what was supposed to be one final time last year, only to learn he has changed his mind and will play again after Augusta scrapped its new policy banning former champions from playing after they turn 65.

Palmer and Nicklaus are the only past Masters champions invited to join Augusta National, and they have been strangely silent on whether the club should have women.

Woods sees it both ways. He would like to see a female member, but he said he respects the right of a private club to invite whomever it wants.

That led The New York Times to ask him to skip the Masters in protest. Burk was so disappointed in Woods' riding the fence that she said, ''If others had taken that view, he'd be a caddie at Augusta.''

Burk plans her protest on Saturday during the third round. It was not clear where she would be allowed to demonstrate, only that she will have company.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition have permits to protest, along with a single member of the Ku Klux Klan, which supports Augusta National; a group protesting Jackson and his coalition; and a group opposed to Burk.

''It's going to be an absolute joke, just a zoo,'' Woods said. ''I think a lot of us players are really going to enjoy getting inside the ropes and playing, and not having to deal with a lot of this stuff.''



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