April 1, 2007
AUGUSTA, Ga.---With this year's PGA Tour event before the year's first major moving out of state, many golfers elected to skip the Houston Open in favor of more practice at the National. That means even more big names than usual were already in the Garden City today.
This has been the most active Sunday before the Tournament in awhile, with some serious star power on the course. Tiger Woods, chief among them, stepped out onto the driving range around 1 o'clock this afternoon, and defending champ Phil Mickelson showed up just a few minutes earlier.
Some other past champions, like Gary Player and Seve Ballesteros, who hasn't seen the field in four years, were also getting some extra practice in today.
Augusta native Charles Howell III is already back home as well, looking for his first Green Jacket.
The one thing these players have in common is they can't wait for this time of year.
Aside from the star power already in town on Sunday, the major talk at the course today focused on Arnold Palmer and the possibility of the four-time Masters champion serving as this year's honorary starter.
Palmer played his 50th and final Masters Tournament in 2004, and has always maintained that he wouldn't consider hitting a ceremonial tee shot in Augusta until he stopped playing competitive golf.
Asked about the possibility of taking on that role this year, Palmer said it was a possibility.
At the Augusta National today, the players already in town for the Tournament were overwhelmingly in favor of Palmer taking over that role. The Masters has not had an honorary starter since Sam Snead passed away in 2002.
There are many unique aspects of the Masters, but one that stands out is the participation of amateurs in the field. This year, five of them will be taking part in the fun.
A couple of them could be found around the driving range and chipping area earlier today. David Womack was one of them. Womack just happens to be from McDonough, Georgia, and he picked up his invite by being the runner-up in the US Mid Amateur. Also around earlier was Casey Watabu from Hawaii. Watabu won the Public Links title to be invited. Once he won, he knew he was coming to Augusta.
Last year, no amateur made the cut. Ryan Moore was the last one to do so two years ago, and he came in 13th.
2005 Masters Amateurs
Augusta's own Vaughn Taylor is no longer a Masters rookie. Heck, he has two PGA Tour victories and was a member of the Ryder Cup. The pressure of performing in front of the home folks might be off this week.
"Last year was pretty nerve-wracking and pressure-packed, so hopefully this year I'll be more relaxed and there'll be a little less pressure on me, and just go out and play and enjoy it a little more," he said.
It's safe to say nobody had more pressure on them at last year's Masters than Vaughn Taylor. The Hephzibah High and Augusta State alum is the hometown hero on the links. With a laid-back attitude, Taylor made it through just fine.
"All in all it was a good week, as much as was going on with pressure and nerves," he told us.
The only regret was one missed putt on 18 that would have let him play the weekend.
"I hit a really good putt, it just didn't go in, so that's the way the ball bounces sometimes," he said. "I would have liked to make that putt and get there on the weekend, but it was a learning experience, and it probably motivated me to get back this year."
What a whirlwind year it has been for the unassuming Taylor. The Masters was the first major he'd ever played in. He also made the field in the PGA and the British Open. Then there was the Ryder Cup. Not bad for a 31-year-old with three years of PGA experience under his belt. So when does he find time for a vacation?
"Last year was so crazy, I didn't feel like doing anything, so I just stayed home and relaxed and just tried to get back down to Earth," he said. "I'm just fortunate to be able to play a sport I love and be able to do this for a living."
This from maybe the most down-to-Earth golfer on the planet. Talk about humble. This year hasn't been too bad so far. He's coming off a third place finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Who knows...when he tees it up this week, we might see something we very rarely see from Taylor on the course: a smile!
Someone will be smiling come next Sunday afternoon.
In 2006, it was Phil Mickelson, for a second time.
But as usual, it's never as easy as it looks, and Lefty had some stiff competition.
On a sun-splashed Thursday morning, the stars were out and set to begin their quest for the coveted Green Jacket. Added length, narrower fairways, and more trees added to the backdrop of the National.
Masters rookie Vaughn Taylor opened with a three over 75.
"I'm proud of myself," he said. "I wanted to play a little better than that. The last few holes I definitely got comfortable and finally started making some swings that I thought I needed to."
Only three players broke 70 in the opening round. The leader was Vijay Singh, with a five under 67, serving notice he was ready to win again.
"I'm just happy to be up front, and I'm hoping to go out there tomorrow and do the same thing," he said.
Friday came and went with a Texan on top of the leaderboard. Chad Campbell's 67 vaulted him to the top spot with South African Tim Clark and journeyman Rocco Mediate just a shot off the pace.
One of the best early round stories was that of 54-year-old Ben Crenshaw, who found the time machine. At one under par, gentle Ben made the cut for the first time in nearly a decade.
Other drama in round two included Taylor's quest to make the cut. While Charles Howell III struggled both days, Taylor hung around the cut line. But his birdie on 18 slid by, and VT was only a spectator on the weekend.
"It was a great experience," he said. "I learned a lot. Anytime you play in a tournament of this nature, you're going to learn a lot, and I'll take a lot from it."
Rain was the story on Saturday. A four-hour delay in the afternoon left most of the field having to wait until Sunday to finish things up. That's when Phil Mickelson would make his move to the top of the leaderboard, with ten golfers within three strokes of the lead.
Among them was 46-year-old Fred Couples and Tiger Woods, who had yet to make his charge.
"I've always believed you try to keep yourself in the ballgame," Woods said. "Some days you go low, some days you don't. As long as you're still there, you're building to Sunday."
When they teed off for the final round, everyone was waiting for a Tiger. But one missed putt after another left him disgusted and disappointed.
"I hit it so good today, all day, from the first tee to the 18th hole. I really controlled my flight. It was realy frustrating that something that's been the hallmark of my game, making putts, and all of a sudden I don't make putts. That's very frustrating."
A hole out on 18 by Tim Clarke gave him his best major finish ever, second place.
But the afternoon belonged to Mickelson. Playing alongside good friend Fred Couples, Mickelson took control on the back nine and was never really challenged. A 69 was good enough for an enjoyable walk up 18 and a two-shot victory for his second Green Jacket.
"It felt incredible," he said. "Having a three-shot lead and knowing that victory was at hand was an amazing feeling. It was very stressful in 2004 but it felt very very good today."
So who will it be this time around?
One of the reasons the Masters Tournament is so special is the presence of past champions...men like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. But we found a former Masters champ living right here in Augusta, whose name you probably don't know.
Caddie Eddie McCoy, EB to his friends, still lives within walking distance of the Augusta National, and began learning the nuances of its tricky greens at a young age.
"If you're standing on number one, you have to remember the grain of the greens runs toward the 12 teebox on almost every hole."
McCoy followed the path of many young caddies at the time, looping at the Augusta Country Club until he was ready for what was known as the Big Course.
"I caddied my first Masters at 17 with Mr. Herbert Kaizer."
McCoy was a seasoned veteran at the National before he began working for Gary Player in 1970, nine years after Player won his first Green Jacket. McCoy enlisted the help of a member he caddied for to take over Player's bag.
"I said, 'Mr. Kerr, I heard Gary Player's bag is open next year, and I really would like to have it, because I know he already won one, and I think he's got some more wins in his system.' So he said, 'Okay, we'll see what we can do.'"
A partnership was born that would last 25 years. McCoy and Player won the '74 Masters and, just four years later, equaled the feat.
"You were a celebrity," McCoy said. "If you won the Masters, for the next year you were on the top."
Nearly 30 years later, EB still has a set of irons Player gave to him and a treasured piece of fan mail.
"'I know the importance of a good caddie who knows how the green rolls, especially on a strange course. Good luck, John Griffin.' Now that's one of the highlights of my life."
Player and McCoy parted ways professionally just over ten years ago as the Black Knight urged EB to take on a golfer's bag that had a better shot at making some money. But believe it or not, as Player returns to Augusta for his 50th Masters, McCoy is hoping to be right behind him for one more walk around the Big Course.
McCoy's health has kept him from caddying the past few years, but there is no doubt that his knowledge of the National is as sharp as ever.