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Augusta starts to show its teeth
Criticism mounts over a Masters many deem too tough

AUGUSTA - The azaleas are brighter than ever. As usual, not a blade of grass is out of place. Anticipation is higher than it has been in years at the Masters, with Tiger Woods a winner again after knee surgery and Padraig Harrington going for a third straight major.

But the buzz at Augusta National has been tempered by three years of more teeth-gnashing than fist-pumping.

Birdies have been replaced by bogeys.

Players are becoming more vocal in their criticism of a course that has produced so much excitement from so many charges over the years. They say it has become too long, too tough.

The cathedral of golf is starting to remind Masters chairman Billy Payne of a concert.

'Criticism hurts a little bit,' Payne said Wednesday. 'It's like when you go to a piano recital of one of your granddaughters and you hear somebody say, 'Boy, that's the worst kid I've ever seen.' It hurts your feelings.'

Payne responded by making the course shorter - by 10 yards.

The club also enlarged the tee boxes on the par-4 seventh and par-5 15th, allowing officials to move the tees a little more forward to make the hole play slightly shorter.

Otherwise, a club that tries to control so much can only hope Mother Nature is on its side.

Spring felt like winter two years ago when Zach Johnson became the first Masters champion in more than 50 years to finish over par. A year ago, whipping wind sent Trevor Immelman to a 75, matching the highest final round by a winner.

'This week is an important test,' Payne said. 'Since the most recent, substantial changes to the course in 2006, we have not had good weather over the weekend. The players have not, in fact, had the opportunity to demonstrate their skills against the competitive test of the course. It looks like we are going to have some pretty good weather this weekend.'

It sure hasn't started out that way.

Jim Furyk was among the first on the driving range Wednesday morning, and as he walked to the first tee, he was taken aback when a security guard told him he was not allowed to walk on the grass. Turns out there was a frost delay, although sunshine warmed the course considerably in the afternoon, and it is supposed to get better for the next four days.

Will that be all it takes to bring the roars back to Augusta National? To restore hope that someone who is three shots behind going to the back nine on Sunday still has a chance to win?

Tiger Woods isn't so sure.

'The golf course has changed quite a bit,' he said. 'Your strategy has changed. You don't go out there looking to shoot super-low rounds because they are not out there anymore, especially with these conditions that we've had the last two years.'