Thomas Boswell: At Augusta National, ideal conditions are perfectly menacing to the field

Columnist

The sky above the Augusta National on Friday was almost totally blue, the dry spring air in the 70s and the sweeping winds kept any hint of heat away while tossing the tops of the pines and flagsticks. In other words, it was the pluperfect Masters day — heaven to watch, hell to play.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

When conditions here are hard and firm, fast and breezy, fans are in golf ecstasy. But the players — except for one named Bubba Watson, who’s been accused of not knowing what day it is anyway — think they’ve staggered into the worst of all possible worlds. It looks like they should be making birdies. Instead, they are misreading the wind, getting yardages wrong, losing confidence, coping with lightning greens that gain speed as they bake and watching iron shots that would suffice in other weeks at other places, bound off greens down banks and into the water to drown with their dreams.

As the Masters intends, players who are even the slightest bit off their game meet all the subtle torments that the course surreptitiously offers every single year.

“I didn’t play great. I didn’t play bad,” said three-time champion Phil Mickelson. “I just keep making these triples.”

As in triple bogeys. Mickelson, who hasn’t missed the cut here since 1997, made a seven at No. 7 and a seven at No. 15 on Thursday and, on Friday, a remarkably careless trap-to-trap-to-trap six on the 155-yard 12th, in which he never had a penalty stroke, a wet ball or a less than perfect lie.

That’s what this Masters has become. Who can avoid the doubles and triples longest, because they are hiding everywhere, including places where the sneaky course has been changed to lure the luckless.

“Physically, I feel great . . . the wind is what made it tricky,” said Mickelson, who added that if he missed the cut he would watch both weekend rounds on TV as “my punishment.”

For golf fans, this weekend promises to be pure pleasure. Watson is the perfect three-shot leader on a course booby-trapped for mayhem. He’s titanically long, won here in ’12 and might recover from almost any near disaster with his daring. But he’s never met a tree, stream, avian nest, house or, for that matter, shopping mall that his driver, in its wild moments, couldn’t reach. His past three Sunday scores here are 78, 68 and 77. That’s his range. . . . And probably the odds that he wins — about one in three.

“You look at Bubba’s play . . . then look at the [other] leaders (at four, three and two-under par) if you take Bubba out of it,” said Justin Rose. “If someone goes out and plays an amazing week, that’s hard to beat. But you’ve almost got to assume if he did falter, look at the rest of the pack to see if you are in it.”

With that, Rose, at 2 over, declared himself “in it.” Which means almost everybody still is.

Watson emphasized that he never watches golf reports on TV during his tournaments. Excellent idea. If he watched Friday’s play, he’d see Jonas Blixt, on his heels, hit a chip barely off the back of the 11th green and watch in disbelief as it trickled into Rae’s Creek for a double bogey. Since 1933, that back bank has been safe for any decent shot. Not anymore. By Sunday somebody may lag a putt into the water.

Above all, hope that Bubba does not see Louis Oosthuizen make triple bogey eight from the center of the fairway at the 15th when, if he’d simply parred in, he’d have been tied for second place. Oosthuizen’s basic short-iron second shot on the par 5 crept off the back of the green. His standard-looking lob shot simply refused to stop trickling — past the pin, off the green, almost down to a dimple at a time — until it plopped into Rae’s Creek. Without hitting a single ugly shot, he ended up with a snowman.

Asked if he planned to stick to his pre-Masters plan to “smile your troubles away,” Oosti said, “No.”

Prepare to see more, much more, of what’s already in progress — a three-ring circus of birdies, glorious saves and single-car crashes. Rory McIlroy, one of the count-on-your-fingers-favorites, thought he was playing well after an opening 71. His Friday was one long GIF of jitters. At the second, he lost his drive, and almost himself, in flora to the left. At the 210-yard fourth, he was so long that fans lost sight as he searched for his ball in the kind of abandoned shrub-shrouded shed where the body dump is always found on “CSI.” At the 13th, he was trapped by vegetables up to his neck. Normally, you’d say they were large azaleas, but this year, since they’ve barely bloomed, perhaps they don’t deserve the name.

The key to crazy here is for the weather to stay warm and dry (it will) and for the wind to keep blowing at the diabolical speed at which fans barely notice it but players think of little else. Australia’s Marc Leishman, ranked a credible 69th in the world, birdied the first three holes to get to three under par. Then the breezes drove him crazy — for 12 consecutive holes as he shot 10-over-par.

“It can jump up and grab you at any time,” said Leishman. “I got caught on almost every hole. . . . This is as tough as I’ve seen it. The wind around here is just brutal because one minute it’s behind you and the next minute it’s into you. And then there’s none.”

What’s that mean in distance? Back trap, fighting bogey; dead on the stick, looking at birdie; or in the water in front, facing double bogey.

The Masters often adjusts its pin positions on Saturday to compensate for the conditions of the course the first two days.

This Masters has a chance for an exceptional weekend and exciting Sunday leader board, with major championship winners Watson, Adam Scott, Fred Couples (54) and Jim Furyk currently in the top 10 along with 20-year-old so-good-its-just-not-right Jordan Spieth.

The last thing this Masters needs is change. Perfect weather is predicted for fans and, thus, perfectly dastardly conditions for the players — sun and breeze baking the greens, hardening every bounce, shifting winds introducing luck that undermine courage. It’s been tough. Let it get tougher.

By Sunday night, just get a straight-jacket in the winner’s size and paint it green.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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