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Buildup to Masters starts on soft, slow golf course

AUGUSTA - There was a buzz at Augusta National on Monday.

David Toms heard it after finishing nine holes of practice on a course that was soft and wet, nothing like last year's Masters. It was the whirring of the system that siphons moisture out of the turf.

'It's wet - very wet,' Toms said. 'If this tells you anything, I backed up a ball with a driver on No. 9. I played the back nine yesterday and had to hit my 5-iron four or five times. I got done and thought about having my 5-iron re-grooved. I hope it firms up. We need it dry just to make it interesting.'

It was bone dry the last time so many players were assembled at Augusta, helping pave the way for Zach Johnson, a regular guy from Iowa and a moderate hitter off the tee, to become a surprise winner at the Masters. Johnson did most of his scoring on the par 5s, as winners tend to do, but he laid up on all of them.

The winning score was 1-over 289, matching the highest ever at the Masters. A major with a reputation of catering to length seemed to be an invitation for any style of game.

But no one is sure what to expect this week.

The brilliant colors of Augusta National were offset by soft, gray clouds on the first full day of practice, this after a weekend that brought 3 inches of rain. Isolated thunderstorms are forecast for the weekend as the temperature rises.

This might be bad news for guys such as Johnson, Toms and Nick O'Hern, the left-handed Australian who can barely hit it out of his shadow. O'Hern is good enough to have twice beaten Tiger Woods in match play, but a soft Augusta presents a greater challenge.

'It would be nice if the fairways could be dry again,' O'Hern said. 'I've only known bloody long on this golf course. You just hit it as far and as straight as you can. There's no shaping the ball, except to the greens. Just get up there and smash it.'

Boo Weekley was flipping through the channels Sunday night when he came across a Masters highlight show. He said players were hitting 9-iron and wedges into the greens, which wasn't quite the case Monday during his first full practice round.

The club of choice was usually a 6-iron at best.

'I got up there today and I was standing there going, 'Gawd dog, what year was this?' I know I didn't hit it that bad off the tee,' Weekley said. 'On No. 18, I hit a 4-iron.'

Sean O'Hair returned to the Masters for only the second time and felt as though the course had gotten longer, or he had become shorter. He couldn't reach the bunker off the tee on the first, second and fifth holes.

'It's just so wet, and the air was heavy,' O'Hair said. 'It's a little hairy. The course is still in excellent shape. But it's a little slower than I expected. It's definitely going to be easier on the greens, but it's just going to play so long.'

Dozens of players began working their way around the golf course on a lazy Monday afternoon with some 40,000 fans scattered around the property of the one-time nursery, watching players try to skip their tee shots over the water on the par-3 16th, standing in long lines for merchandise, or straining for a view of Tiger Woods.

'There's more people out there than in my whole town, I can tell you that right now,' said Weekley, a Masters rookie who hails from Milton, Fla., with a population of just over 8,000.

Woods usually has that many watching him. The world's No. 1 player and overwhelming favorite arrived Sunday, played another full round Monday morning and planned one more practice session before beginning his quest for the Grand Slam.

Woods seems to be able to handle the course whether dry or soft, short or long, having won four times already and trying this week to become the first player to capture four green jackets in one decade.

'The course, his play, the way he's played this year, there's no question he's the odds-on favorite to win here,' Steve Stricker said.

SideBar: THE MASTERS

When: Thursday-Sunday

Where: Augusta National

TV: ESPN (Thursday-Friday, 4 p.m., 11:30 p.m.) CBS (Saturday, 3:30 to 7 p.m.; Sunday, 2:30 to 7 p.m.)