Augusta National will provide deserving champion

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- One of the story lines coming into this Masters was that Billy Payne, the brains behind the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, had replaced Hootie Johnson as chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, representing a generational change of some significance. But it could be that another personnel maneuver is having a greater impact on this year's tournament.

Soon after Payne took over for Johnson, Fred Ridley replaced Will Nicholson, the longtime chairman of the Competition Committee. Those are the folks who set up the golf course, place the pins and determine the green speed. Now, the significance of the change is that Ridley is the immediate past president of the United States Golf Association. And this Masters is feeling a lot like a U.S. Open.

After 36 holes, the leaders -- Brett Wetterich and Tim Clark -- were at 2-under-par 142, the highest score at the midway point since Craig Stadler and Curtis Strange went into the weekend at 144 in 1982. Ultimately, Stadler won in a playoff over Dan Pohl after finishing 72 holes tied at 4-under-par 284. This year it doesn't feel as if anyone is going to match that. It's like everyone is bicycling uphill. Only four players were under par after two rounds, with Vaughn Taylor and Justin Rose one stroke behind the leaders.

The one caveat here is that after two days of extremely difficult pin positions, the committee may take pity on the players and ease up on them on the weekend. That happened in 2004 when the course setup got easier every day, ultimately yielding a Sunday shootout in which winner Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, K.J. Choi and Sergio Garcia -- the top four finishers -- all shot in the 60s. Then again, Ridley may not have such a generous heart.

While there were a lot of "Sunday pins" on both Thursday and Friday, Ridley also got an assist from nature. For the first time since the major renovations of Augusta National began in 2002, there has been no rain since Tuesday night and the course is playing firm and fast, as it was designed to play. Those conditions bring a lot of players into the mix, letting short hitters like Clark have a crack because a strong up-and-down game around the greens is hugely important.

The conditions, exacerbated by temperatures barely out of the 50s, (even the guard outside the clubhouse was wearing mittens), conspired to create a mad scramble going into the weekend. Lurking within striking distance are 2000 Masters champion Vijay Singh (144), Padraig Harrington (145), Geoff Ogilvy (145), Jim Furyk (146) and Tiger Woods (147).

Of those within five strokes of the lead, you still have to like Woods' chances. Furyk and Ogilvy have both won the U.S. Open so they certainly know how to handle these conditions. And while there is always a concern about Singh's putter, he has won here before.

Of the trio in red numbers, the best bet to hang on is probably Clark, the South African who finished second here last year. Taylor is from Augusta, so he's got that going for him. And a victory would carry the added irony of coming on the 20th anniversary of another Augusta native, Larry Mize, besting Greg Norman in a playoff to win.

Mickelson (149), who fought back Friday with a 73, Retief Goosen (152) and Adam Scott (152) will be playing on the weekend. Really, when conditions are this difficult, anyone in the field is still in the tournament. Even though the cut number was pushed to a robust 8-over-par 152 because all within 10 strokes of the lead are guaranteed of making the cut, Darren Clarke, Garcia and Els -- all at 154 -- went home early.

What do we think of this demolition derby? It is awesome. This is a major championship and conditions are supposed to be difficult. I've made this point before but I'll make it again: Par is an arbitrary number. Forget about it. Get it out of your head. All that matters is where everyone is in relation to everyone else. If it takes 290 to win the tournament, shoot 290.

The thing to remember about Augusta National is that the powers-that-be can make this golf course really difficult without tricking it up. First off, it is an architectural masterpiece -- no matter what you think of the renovations over the past five years. The fairways are seductively wide and the greens are misleadingly large. The fact is there is only about one-third of the fairway on each hole you want to use, and only about one-quarter of each green. As Nick Faldo said back when he was winning three green jackets, "There is a route around this place. You just have to find it and follow it."

Because every one of the steeply contoured greens has a sub-air system beneath it that sucks water from the putting surface, guys like Ridley can make the greens run at whatever speed they want no matter the weather conditions. That means not only will they be fast, they will be uniformly fast. The point is this: No matter what the conditions, quit whining and adapt to them. Everyone is playing the same course. What could be more fair than that?

Some will argue that there must be something wrong with the course setup since players like Garcia and Els missed the cut. Let them argue until they turn blue. The only thing wrong was that Garcia and Els didn't play well enough. That's their fault, not the golf course's.

This is what a major championship is supposed to be -- difficult. This is the Masters, and this is Augusta National. The course always produces a great weekend, and almost always identifies a deserving champion. The same will be true this year, no matter the score. Sit back and enjoy.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.