Crenshaw takes an early lead at Masters

By: From Wire Reports
By: From Wire Reports

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) -- Ben Crenshaw woke up early and turned back the clock Thursday, taking the early Masters lead on a super-sized course that was supposed to leave oldtimers like him far behind.

The 55-year-old, two-time champion played shots he probably never would have imagined when he last won at Augusta in 1995 -- an emotional week he devoted to his longtime teacher, Harvey Penick, who had died shortly before the tournament.

Gentle Ben used a 5-wood for his second shot on the 455-yard first hole, but got the ball to the green and safely two-putted.

He used the traditional three shots to reach the par-5 second -- normally a two-shot hole for the big hitters -- and waited nearly 10 minutes to putt, after Davis Love III and John Kelly batted it around the green for a while.

But Crenshaw made that putt for birdie, then made par on the next two holes and was at 1-under par after four.

With about 25 players on the course -- not including Tiger Woods or defending champion Phil Mickelson -- Crenshaw was tied with Tim Clark for the lead.

The tournament kicked off when Arnold Palmer hit the ceremonial tee shot from a first teebox that used to be the practice green.

Palmer's shot into the left rough, about 100 yards short and on the opposite side of the fairway from the bunker that's in play for the big hitters.

"That little draw off that first tee kept me out of the sand trap up there," Palmer joked.

For plenty of other players, that sand trap will be well in play on the first hole.

It was all part of the plan when the powers at Augusta started expanding their course -- first in 1999 and again in 2002 and 2006. They got tired of watching players drive over that trap that Palmer joked about, to say nothing of all the other holes that were being overpowered and turned into pitch-and-chip displays.

"They saw Tiger emasculate the golf course, they saw him hitting sand wedge and pitching wedge two times each on 17, and they said they didn't want people doing that anymore," two-time Masters champion Tom Watson said Wednesday.

Woods had a late afternoon tee time Thursday, while Mickelson was set to go late morning.

They were the two most obvious favorites on a course that used to be a great equalizer -- favoring flat sticks over flat bellies -- but has since become a power player's track.

It was Tiger's 12-stroke victory in 1997 that helped bring about changes that have, in many opinions, eliminated all but the biggest hitters from having a real chance on this 7,445-yard course.

Woods and Mickelson have won five of the last six Masters, and the shorter hitters have been left to wonder if they're only field-fillers, not true contenders.

"Since they lengthened the golf course, the golf course plays to their advantage," said two-time winner Jose Maria Olazabal. "The longer the golf course, the better it is for the longer hitters."

On that short list would also be Ernie Els and Vijay Singh. Henrik Stenson is a popular choice this year and Geoff Ogilvy gained credibility with his U.S. Open win.

Paul Goydos and Scott Verplank? Probably not gonna happen.

"It can be done," Verplank said. "But it does put a handful of guys at a much greater advantage, and those guys all hit the ball farther than I do. I was playing a practice round with Davis Love III, and he's launching it 300 yards to the top of the hill on the first hole. I'm just hoping I can see the green."

The only assist the little guys might get is from the weather.

Unlike some recent slogfests, where rain and muck softened things up and took away all the roll, dry, sunny and cool conditions are expected this week. Palmer teed with temperatures in the 40s.

The King at the first hole marked the return of a tradition -- having former champions start the tournament -- that went on hiatus after Sam Snead's death in 2002.

At first, Palmer was reluctant to take on a ceremonial role when he called it quits after the 2004 tournament. He hadn't been competitive in years, but the saddest moment came when he realized he couldn't even keep it respectable on the expanded course. He hit driver-driver on No. 18, his last competitive hole at Augusta.

"It's a hard bullet to swallow when you see the guys hitting the ball as far as they are and playing the kind of golf they are, and to know that you're not going to do that anymore," Palmer said. "And I've known it for a number of years now."


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