AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The azaleas bloomed a little early this year, so they're looking a little ragged, but chances are you aren't going to be able to say that about Tiger Woods. This is Masters week and Woods is the defending champion and he might turn the whole thing into a coming-out party again.
Woods played a practice round two weeks ago at Augusta National. He flew into town with Mark O'Meara, flew out that night and kept the whole thing about as hush-hush as he could. He said no one kept score, but that's not going to be the case starting Thursday when the Masters begins at the newly lengthened and beefed-up layout.
Woods downplayed the impromptu practice round.
"We just slapped it around and took a good look at the holes," said Woods, who played another practice round Monday and was followed by a horde of fans and media.
Nine holes have been altered and nearly 300 yards were added to Augusta National, and the changes are certain to draw most of the pre-tournament attention.
Woods said he may hit a 3-wood or 2-iron at No. 7, depending on the wind. At the par-5 13th, which had 25 yards added to it, the strategy still calls for a 3-wood so he can better control the flight of the ball around the corner of the dogleg left.
And at the 465-yard 18th, which has been lengthened 60 yards, Woods said the play is still driver off the tee. But with 305 yards to a bunker on the left and trees on the right, he is going to have to be accurate. Woods expects to have a 6-iron or 7-iron left to the green. Last year during the last round, he hit a driver and a sand wedge.
The par-4 11th may be the hole most changed, Woods said, because the tee was not only moved back 35 yards, but also shifted to the left, bringing the water to the left of the green into play again.
Woods said he has no problem with a more difficult Augusta National. But be prepared for a barrage of player comments about the changes to the course, the most significant alterations to the layout since the first Masters in 1934. Most of the players arrived Monday and all have practice rounds scheduled today, when remarks on the redesign are sure to intensify.
Off the course, Woods also is making news. His new girlfriend, 21-year-old Swedish model Elin Nordegren, also is in town.
Woods also is making food news. He said he went 48 days without eating red meat on a bet with his friends in which former Stanford teammate Jerry Chang and others gave up French fries, bread and beer. As host of the champions dinner Tuesday night, Woods is in charge of the menu. He came up with sashimi, steaks, grilled chicken breasts, mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables.
Woods also could set the menu next year, depending how well things go this week. He's playing well enough -- he won Bay Hill three weeks ago, tied for 14th at the Players Championship and took last week off. But Woods also has history working against him. The only players who have won consecutive Masters are Jack Nicklaus (1965-66) and Nick Faldo (1989-90).
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