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Amen Corner never had a prayer

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Amen Corner is supposed to be a place to
fear at Augusta National. Amateur Brandt Snedeker doesn't seem to
know that.

The U.S. Amateur Public Links champion birdied all three holes
of the treacherous stretch Thursday, en route to a round of
1-over-par 73 in the first round of The Masters.

"It was fantastic," he said.

The charge on Amen Corner helped Snedeker overcome a front-nine
score of 40 that made him look like a two-day-and-out amateur. Not
anymore. The 73 puts him in good position to make the cut.

Playing in his first Masters, the 23-year-old Snedeker said the
nerves didn't hit until he walked up to the first tee box.

"I played in front of more people than ever before," he said.
"For the first five holes, I couldn't feel my hands."

In the end, though, he was feeling not only his hands, but the
good vibes from the group of about 100 friends and family members
who came to watch the kid from Nashville.

"He's very good," said playing partner Fred Couples. "He took
Amen Corner to its knees."

Major Challenge
The defending British Open and PGA champions
opened The Masters by proving they really do belong on golf's
biggest stages.

PGA winner Shawn Micheel finished at even-par 72. British Open
champion Ben Curtis shot 73. Each were within striking range of
Justin Rose, who took the early first-round lead at 5-under 67

"I wasn't nervous at all. It was bizarre," said Curtis, who
qualified for his first Masters by winning the British.

Curtis had one of the shots of the day, holing out from 125
yards for an eagle on the par-4 seventh.

Micheel is also playing this tournament for the first time, and
yes, the greens at Augusta are a tad quicker than they are at Oak
Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., where he shocked the golf
world with his victory in the PGA Championship.

"There's impending doom everywhere you go on the greens,"
Micheel said. "I had to be conservative at times. It's probably
part of being my first time here."

Defending U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk isn't playing The Masters
because of a wrist injury.

All For Zhang
Zhang Lian-Wei received a special invitation,
making him the first player from the Republic of China to compete
in The Masters. He shot 77.

Among the reasons Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson
listed for inviting Zhang was that he was the first Chinese player
to win on the European tour last year, beating Ernie Els at the
Singapore Masters, and that he finished second on the Asian tour
money list.

Still, the invite raised a few eyebrows.

Arjun Atwal of India won the Asian Tour money list last year,
then earned his PGA Tour card through Q-school. Thongchai Jaidee of
Thailand finished third on the money list, and he is No. 68 in the
world ranking. Zhang is No. 181.

At his news conference Wednesday, Johnson stood by his decision.

"We felt that it was good for the game of golf to extend a hand
to the most populous nation in the world," Johnson said. "He is a
good golfer, and we thought it was entirely appropriate."

Zhang, who was playing his first competitive round in the United
States, said he felt some pressure because he knew people in his
homeland were watching.

"I knew before I arrived that it would be the most challenging
course I'd ever play," he said.

Masters Moment
Donald Blincoe's first trip to The Masters is
one he won't forget.

He was standing on the right side of the seventh fairway when
John Daly's drive landed square on his head, causing a big knot and
some queasiness. After getting checked out by a medical staff on
duty, he was OK.

Blincoe is from Bardstown, Ky., which he said was the Bourbon
capital of the world.

"Daly told me to go have a drink of whiskey," Blincoe said.

Daly should have offered to buy him the drink. His tee shot
ricocheted off Blincoe's head and back into the fairway, from where
Daly was able to make par.

"This is my first time at the Masters, and I got a memorable
experience," Blincoe said.

Divots: The 10th hole was unkind again to last year's
runner-up, Len Mattiace. He made double bogey, the same score he
got credit for last year on No. 10 in the playoff against Mike
Weir. ... Shigeki Maruyama shot 46 on the back nine, which included
four bogeys, an 8 on the par-3 12th and a 7 on the par-4 17th. ...
Vijay Singh went from the leaderboard to the middle of the pack
with an 8 on No. 15. That's the same hole where his chances for the
2002 title sank on Sunday, when he made bogey after knocking a shot
in the pond behind the green.