MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The Masters golf tournament begins tomorrow in Augusta, Georgia. It's the first major of the year on the men's tour. It's also the richest in tradition, from the lush grounds of Augusta National Golf Club to the many famous shots that are now part of golfing lore.

NPR's Tom Goldman reports that there's another tradition evolving there and it has some players worried: high scores and low drama.

TOM GOLDMAN: Even during yesterday's practice rounds, the cheers from Augusta's final nine holes, the back nine, echoed across the chilly wind-swept golf course. That noise, which becomes a full-throated roar when the tournament starts, is as much a part of Masters tradition as pink azaleas and the winner's green jacket. Over the years it has heralded some of Augusta's greatest moments, back nine charges, they call them, when players came from behind to win: Gene Sarazen in 1935, Jack Nicklaus in 1986.

But in recent years, not as many charges, not as many roars. And players aren't happy about it. Australian Greg Norman, The Shark, is back this week for his 23rd Masters.

Mr. GREG NORMAN (Professional Golfer): The locker room talk is the fact that a lot of the character of the back nine has been taken away.

GOLDMAN: It's been called Tiger-proofing the course, a way to counter the game's most powerful player who won his first Masters in 1997 by 12 strokes. Augusta National was renovated to add distance so even Woods would find it a challenge to reach Augusta's greens and score low. This made it that much tougher for everyone else and made the comeback a rarity. Norman says the course has grown by 420 yards since he last played in 2002.

Mr. NORMAN: It's not the vast number of players who could actually feel like they can walk on the 10th tee and say, boy, I'm a Ben Crenshaw, or I'm a Corey Pavin, or I am somebody that's sure to hit it, I can really go and tear up the back nine and just blitz it.

GOLDMAN: Decorum is everything at Augusta. So yesterday, the game's two best players, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, politely blamed the weather of the past two years, cold, rainy, windy, for the high scores and lack of drama. They were partly right. Still, rain or shine, Woods agrees the course has become a beast.

Mr. TIGER WOODS (Professional Golfer): As I was saying earlier, you don't have the same amount of birdie opportunities that they used to have. It's just not - it's not the same.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOLDMAN: Could it be Woods is laughing because he knows if anyone can dig out a birdie, it's him?

(Soundbite of cheers)

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible) on the 72nd hole.

GOLDMAN: Two weeks ago, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Woods won the tournament with a birdie putt on the final hole. The dramatic moment, seen on NBC, confirmed that Woods is back after knee surgery and rehab. So there's great anticipation at Augusta, course length notwithstanding. Woods is on form, so is Ireland's Padraig Harrington, winner of the last two majors while Tiger was away, and so is Mickelson.

Mr. PHIL MICKELSON (Professional Golfer): Right now I'm playing some of the best golf I've ever played.

GOLDMAN: The man nicknamed Lefty already has won twice this year. Still, he continues to dodge reporters' attempts to portray him as Woods' archrival. Yesterday, someone slyly asked Mickelson about his two Masters titles. By tradition, the previous year's winner puts the green sport coat on the new champion. Did Mickelson like it better, the reporter asked, when left-hander Mike Weir slipped the jacket on Mickelson, or when Tiger did it?

Mr. MICKELSON: Always the wise guy. To get that jacket from Mike and keep it amongst left-handers was cool.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MICKELSON: But I do have a picture of him sliding that jacket on me. Yeah, it felt good.

GOLDMAN: That's as close as it gets to fighting words in the gentlemanly sport of golf. No matter. Those two and everyone else in the field will have their hands full with the real adversary: the long and difficult golf course.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Augusta.

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