Shorter hitters could rule at Augusta

It's that time of year already. The Masters is next week and the season is in focus. Phil Mickelson has played so many rounds at Augusta National the past two weeks that you'd think he was a member. Tiger Woods and Ernie Els were in good spirits at the Tavistock Cup. Vijay Singh is working on his game at TPC-Sawgrass, where the winds have died and the sun is shining. Augusta 2005 is shaping up as a battle of the giants ... or is it?

All year we've been talking Big Four. Then we get to the fifth major and we get the Little Four, a leaderboard of Lilliputians -- Fred Funk, Luke Donald, Scott Verplank and Joe Durant. "Peashooter," is the word Funk used to describe the contingent of mighty mites who were grinding to win the Players Championship. It was a Deane Beman Ball.

The former commissioner was famous not only for commissioning Pete Dye to design the Stadium course but also for drop-kicking 4-woods into greens when Jack Nicklaus was hitting 9-irons. Beman always had the classic Little Man's Disease, but there's no chip on Funk's shoulder.

"I kind of felt like Herbie the Volkswagen, the Love Bug, because ... the bombers are going 40 by me," said the 5-foot-8, 165-pound Funk, who simply motored down the fairways at an 85.7 percent clip last week.

The Players was a reminder that golf is golf and it's not how far but how many. You'd figure on wet fairways, where balls were plugging and picking up mud, that the Little Guys would be at a disadvantage.

Hard and fast is supposed to favor the more accurate hitters and make the 500-yard par-4s reachable. Long and sloppy is supposed to favor the bombers. Turning the page to Augusta, the last time we had a Muddy Masters, it was another little guy who came out on top, Canadian Mike Weir.

Judging from the rains that doused Atlanta on Thursday -- and the PGA Tour this season -- it figures to be a wet one at Augusta. If the new redesign wasn't too long for Weir, who ranks 145th this year in driving distance, then it won't be too long for any of the munchkins.

That pass Luke Donald made with a 4-iron on the 72nd hole was as pure as anything Singh, Woods, Els or Mickelson produced this year and a sign that he's ready for the big moment.

Scott Verplank: Nobody's got a bigger heart.

Joe Durant: One of the best iron men in the game.

And Fred Funk: Seven wins, including the Players, is a pretty strong career for a former college golf coach.

All this talk about a Big Four, and none of them have continued to rise the last three weeks. Woods at Bay Hill and the Players was not the Woods who won Doral. Singh had the back-to-back final-hole losses at Honda and Bay Hill before a quadruple-bogey at 18 took him out of the Players. Els had a final-round 69 in the wind Monday at Sawgrass, but experienced two quiet weeks in Orlando and Ponte Vedra. And Mickelson was on the board early at the Players, but shot 77-75 in the third and final rounds.

Just a word of caution to those who think a bomber will go long and win the Masters. When it comes to sizing the green jacket, this could be a year for a Weir to go 42-regular.