ESPN golf analysts Andy North, Curtis Strange and Paul Azinger participated in a media conference call today to discuss next week’s Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. ESPN will have live telecasts of the first two rounds at 3 p.m. ET on Thursday and Friday, April 9-10, as well as extensive coverage on SportsCenter, ESPN.com and other ESPN platforms. Full details HERE.
A transcript of the conference call follows:
ANDY NORTH: Well, I think first of all, we always look forward to Augusta. It’s kind of, in my opinion, it’s always been kind of the start of the golf season, that first major championship, going back to a place that everyone is familiar with; the viewer has watched the tournament being played on the same golf course year after year after year so they are very familiar with it. It’s just a great way to get started.
Obviously the flowers, the beauty of the place is second to none and I think this year, it’s even a little bit more interesting than a lot of the years that we’ve got McIlroy coming off of some really good play and having a chance to do some things that haven’t been done, and Jordan Spieth and Jimmy Walker and some is of the younger players that have really made some steps in the last few years have stepped up and won some tournaments. It’s going to be an interesting week.
PAUL AZINGER: Yeah, I mean, I’m looking forward to it, as well. I think Rory has an opportunity to win the fourth major and close out that slam, if you will.
It should be another fantastic Masters. I think the anticipation of whether or not Tiger will play, I think also is a big deal. Tiger’s always going to be the story leading into every major as long as he plays the game, and I’m bracing for another great week, exciting week.
CURTIS STRANGE: Whenever I come to this time of year and have a chance to go back to Augusta, to me, that’s the No. 1 story line is the place and the golf course and the history. We’ve always got great story lines.
Tiger has been a big part of that the last number of years, Rory this year and there’s numerous others that are always fun to talk about during the week and as the week progresses.
But we knew pre tournament going into Augusta, it’s the place and the anticipation from all the players, I don’t care if you’re Jack Nicklaus to somebody who just qualified last week. It’s a place that never disappoints. As you get there, all of you guys on this phone ‑‑ and girls, ladies, sorry ‑‑ talking on the phone, all of us can’t wait to get there, and I think that’s a unique perspective and kind of a great story line before every Masters.
PAUL AZINGER: Can I just add real quick, too, about Augusta as a whole, just to reiterate what Curtis is talking about here.
It’s the most strict tournament but also the most polite. There are a lot of rules there, a lot of history and a lot of tradition and it is revered by the players, as Curtis said, like Jack Nicklaus and guys that have never been there for a reason. They just have a value system there that it’s a pretty high standard at Augusta National. They expect the Patrons to act a certain way. And they themselves, the Augusta National Chairman right down through all the members and all that, all carry themselves a certain way. It’s kind of neat to see.
Q – All three of you, very veteran players, did you ever reach a stage later in your career, did you ever worry about being embarrassed, whether you were coming off surgery or just bad play, whatever the case may have been. Ever worried about embarrassing yourself and can Augusta do that more than the other majors?
ANDY NORTH: I’d be happy to get that one first. I was embarrassed 90 percent of the time I went out there. I think the hardest thing about Augusta is the greens are so severe and the chipping and pitching around the greens, even though there’s no rough is so ‑‑ you have to be so precise; that if you’re just a little bit off there, you can look pretty silly.
I know there’s a year or two in there where they went from the bermuda overseed to bent, and the greens were so fast. The first year there, I absolutely embarrassed myself the first year. I putted off four greens the first round. Generally I can keep my first putt on a green. I couldn’t do it there four different times that week.
It’s a place that if you get it in the wrong place, even if you’re on top of your game, there are some things really crazy that happen. It wasn’t that many years ago that Tiger putted it in the water on the 13th hole.
So there’s some things there that you put the ball in the wrong place, you can look pretty silly.
CURTIS STRANGE: I think what makes it so unique from any other championship we play or tournament, Masters Tournament as they call it ‑‑ as a player, it’s hard to put into words that, again, the best players in the world, they are over a putt, and subconsciously, they can’t help but realize if they don’t really work on this, and really focus, something bad is really going to happen.
And it could be putting it off the ninth hole, which I’ve seen two people do, after wonderful second shots. It could be just putting a second shot, a simple second shot into a simple little area that it’s impossible to get it up‑and‑down. It could be any number of things.
And where in the world do you have that mentality when you’re a Top‑50 player in the world, before you hit a shot? So it’s always in the back of your mind. And I think obviously around the greens are the majority of that problem.
But it’s why you’re so exhausted after the event. It weighs on you so much mentally. You know, have to put it in the fairway and having to put it on a certain part of the green so you don’t give yourself that impossible shot and then if you put it on the wrong side of the green, just hit a decent shot. Put it on the wrong side of the green, now you’re working as hard as you’ve ever worked. It’s a unique set of greens and golf course in that respect.
ANDY NORTH: It’s the only golf tournament I’ve ever played in that you can have putts from six and eight feet that normally 100 percent of the time, all you’re thinking about is making it.
Here, you’ve got to be so conscious of the perfect speed and everything else that you’re trying to make sure you don’t hit it four, five feet by the hole. I mean, you’re really concentrating on making sure you don’t make a mistake versus trying to just make the putt.
PAUL AZINGER: And I think just in general, sports, really, the best players are the most exposed, and we live every day at the highest level trying not to embarrass ourselves or do something stupid or post a stupid score, post a 79 or an 85 or something and Augusta just exacerbates it.
You cannot, you cannot take a shot off at Augusta National or you’ll pay a heavy price. You could be embarrassed there.
Personally, I went out every round, I think any anxiety I may have felt while I played this game at a high level was that I would do something to embarrass myself in the end, and you just didn’t want to do that. But Augusta really exposes that potential.
CURTIS STRANGE: I want to add a quick story ‑‑ Fergie, you know this one. Seve Ballesteros at the height of his career. On the 16th hole, walks off with a five. Goes to the press room. “Well, Seve, how did you 4‑putt 16 from eight feet?”
“I miss, I miss, I miss, I make.” (Laughs) You talk about embarrassing yourself. You think you’re going to make two and you make five, so it happens to everybody.
Q — Not to completely write off Tiger and Phil, but should we be focusing, those of us thinking about the American golfers, on guys like Jimmy Walker and Horschel and Spieth, and a lot of the guys who have won but not yet won majors?
CURTIS STRANGE: Yeah, everybody’s got to start somewhere, yeah. Spieth is gradually getting better. Jimmy Walker is an older guy for doing what he’s doing; Horschel; you’ve got a host of guys. We’ve all started somewhere.
You learn to play this game at that level incrementally, and yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if any of these guys, their first major, they are already world‑class players.
PAUL AZINGER: I think Tiger and Phil, what we are looking for now are flashes of brilliance. We are looking for reminders of what used to be, not of who they are now, because neither one ‑‑ Phil has not had a Top‑10 in almost two years, or one Top‑10, and that’s not like Phil.
We all know the plight of Tiger Woods. Sadly, for whatever reason, Tiger sacrificed a winning swing at the altar of a perfect swing and he may have sacrificed a winning body at the altar of a perfect body, and it’s been hard to watch that undoing. But that’s what we’ve seen.
So I think what we are looking for from those two guys are flashes of what brilliance in what used to be, not what is. This is a new generation, a new age, a new time; and guys like Rickie Fowler and Spieth and Reed, they are the future of this game and they are going to carry the torch. I look for one of those guys to really contend this week.
ANDY NORTH: But if there is a week during the course of the year where one of the older guys, one of the veteran players could do well, this is probably that week.
And looking at Phil, in particular, here is a guy who seems like no matter how he’s playing, once he drives down that drive, something clicks and he is really, really good.
So if there was a week that one of these guys would do well, I would suspect it’s this week.
Q — Could you tell me how you think Russell Henley’s game might be suited to eventually contending at Augusta? I know he hasn’t won this year, but he made the cut for the first time last year.
ANDY NORTH: One of the things about Russell, he’s a wonderful putter. And obviously you’ve got to putt your ball well there.
When he gets in his streaks of when he’s putting well, he putts probably as well as anybody. But it really does take awhile for a player to figure out Augusta National and figure out how to get it around. And you’ve got to make putts, but you’ve got to keep the ball in positions where you can make putts. But he’s the kind of guy that his short game is very, very good, and obviously that works there.
PAUL AZINGER: Augusta National, I think Augusta and St. Andrews are the two biggest puzzles on the PGA TOUR that have to be pieced together, and it does take time. You can’t just slap a puzzle together. You’ve got to work your way through the parts and it becomes a sum of the parts, and that’s the way Augusta National is.
It is probably the most strategic golf course; an inch or two, your ball can stop on the precipice, or it can roll into the water on 15 and you’re 50 yards further away from the hole than had the ball stayed on the green.
So there’s a big luck factor there, but you have to put together the whole entire sum of the parts to figure out how to play that well, and Andy’s right. It takes time. It takes experience.
Q — You made reference to Rory going for the Grand Slam. I just wonder, when you look at his body of work, you’re talking about putting him now in almost a Mt. Rushmore‑type position with the guys that he would join with career Grand Slams. I wonder if you guys see him that way, and if not, why not?
CURTIS STRANGE: Yeah, I definitely think if he wins this week, he will be on that Mt. Rushmore of golf.
I watched him ‑‑ I was at The Ryder Cup this past year, as Andy was. And I watched Saturday two matches, and Rory happened to be in both of them. I wasn’t watching Rory; I was watching the Americans ‑‑ but anyway. I came away thinking, there were 23 players at The Ryder Cup this past year, and then there was Rory McIlroy as far as their games. He was head and shoulders above everybody else as far as I’m concerned. And it was the first time I had seen him up close and personal like that.
He’s impressive. He hits the ball straight for as long as he hits it ‑‑ he’s the entire package. The mentality ‑‑ he’s won by some large margins and that shows me something that he has something more in his makeup, and he’s able to keep the pedal to the floor and keep playing aggressive, keep playing conservatively an aggressive approach, smart way.
I actually love the way he handles tough situations. He’s so honest to a fault, and even when he threw the 3‑iron in the water, the way he handled it afterwards diffuses the whole thing and I just think it was fantastic.
I just think that he ‑‑ if he wins this week, which he very possibly could. There’s going to be a lot of pressure and certainly he’s the No. 1 bet, but I just think he’s a wonderful player and he’s not done by a long way. He’s going to win a lot of tournaments.
ANDY NORTH: I look at Rory, and have watched him play an awful lot of golf; that his best is as good as anybody we’ve seen. He is very Tiger‑ish. You look at when he’s won his majors, he’s just dominated. He’s hit shots that have been amazing. At his best, he’s as good as anybody we’ve seen.
With him, it’s the consistency factor: Will he ever be as consistent as the Tiger we saw for 15 years that never missed cuts. Rory still does that a little bit, but at his best, he’s as good as anybody we’ve ever seen.
PAUL AZINGER: Last year when we watched him and called him winning the British Open during the telecast, I made the comment that he’s just a common guy that can do uncommon things. I always saw Rory as maybe a Phil Mickelson‑style career maybe Ernie Els or somebody like that. He’s not Tiger Woods. He missed eight cuts I think in a two‑year stretch or seven cuts in one year, and Tiger has missed that many in his entire career.
So he’s not Tiger Woods. He’s different than Tiger. He’s a normal kind of a walk‑around‑the‑locker room guy. He’s not as revered as Tiger times ten. He’s just a normal guy that can do common things in an uncommon way. It’s unbelievable to watch. He’s not scared of anything, it doesn’t appear.
As Curtis said, he can put the pedal to the medal. But I am concerned about one thing. It is not a requirement to get in the Hall of Fame or to win all four majors to be as fit as he seems to be striving to be.
His body has changed since I saw him at the British Open. His arms have gotten a lot bigger and I’ve recently seen where he’s pressing all these giant weights. I’m wondering what’s the motivation behind that. It’s certainly not a requirement to be great.
I just hope that he’s not, you know, changing his body to his own detriment, because his body has changed since August or since July of last year.
CURTIS STRANGE: When you’re 25 years old, to me, you don’t have to lift the first weight because you have the extraordinary flexibility, the best you’re ever going to have in your life at 22 to 25. You have all the strength. It’s not about strength hitting the golf ball. It’s about controlling the golf club, controlling yourself, and you do lift these weights. And we have all been there and done that.
You do change your body, sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad. I just wonder where this all changed ‑‑ that changed ‑‑ Gary Player did it, okay. Tiger Woods didn’t start this. Gary Player started this. People don’t know that Sam Snead carried the elastic bands to work out a little bit. That’s good and that’s fine.
But I just don’t understand the big weights. And I really agree with Paul saying, you know, we’ll see one guy go by the wayside because of big biceps. I think you have to be careful in your training. I like the training but I don’t understand the heavyweights because injury can happen, bulk can happen, and you just don’t need it at this stage of your career.
PAUL AZINGER: (Mike) Tirico made a great comment last year about Tiger Woods. And his greatest impact on the sport Mike thought might have been, as much as anything, bringing this kind of fitness awareness into the game, which is interesting.
I thought and I think Mike Tirico might be dead on. Everybody now works out at a high level. I think we see more injuries as a result. I always say, it’s just not a requirement to be a great player to look all ripped and have, you know, ten percent body fat or less.
I don’t want to see somebody that can be great with the body that he has change the body. All that matters, like Curtis said, you control the club. You become ‑‑ golf is simple. It’s just not easy. Guys that can control the side spin the best and have the best distance control with a decent short game, they can play. They give out Player of the Year, not Fitness of the Year, not Best Swing of the Year. It’s Player of the Year. That’s the award.
CURTIS STRANGE: Well he is single, though. Maybe that’s why he’s got abs. (Laughter)
PAUL AZINGER: Well that was spoken like a couch potato for me. (Laughter).
Q — Curtis, this is for you. I’m sure this is the case every year, the quality of the leaderboard late on a Sunday, but if you assign certain criteria like Masters Champions, major champions, Hall of Famers. There’s a couple that stand out, ’85 and ’90, and you were in the mix in both of those. If you were a guy who doesn’t watch leaderboards, is Augusta National the hardest to not do that, mainly because of the reaction of the crowd when the leaderboards change, and then the quality of the guys around you, if you’re in the mix.
CURTIS STRANGE: You know, I never really believed when somebody said I didn’t look at the scoreboard. Now, that might be the case, but I always felt like that wasn’t the smartest way to approach it because you have to know where you stand in the tournament. You have to know if you’re ahead or behind or even coming down the last couple holes. It dictates how you play.
And who is behind you really has no meaning to me or relevancy at all because a player is a player is a player. Certainly if Nicklaus was a stroke back or Tiger was a stroke back, you knew they were not going to spit the bit. But you still had to play your own game.
Augusta is as tough as any place, because of the grand leaderboards. They are fantastic. I love that they still keep the big ones, have the big ones and the manual smaller ones. But even on TOUR, you have them every hole I think now.
So if you’re not a scoreboard watcher, you really do have to have blinders on because it’s almost impossible to not see what’s going on around you.
And then your question was about Augusta. Even if you didn’t look at the scoreboards, as we all know, coming down the last nine holes, you know exactly what’s going on because of the reaction of the crowd.
Q — ’85 and ’90, both those years you were in the Top‑10, and so was Floyd, Ballesteros, Nicklaus, Freddie Couples, Watson was in there, too. What’s it like in the heat of battle or even after the fact to know that you were in that kind of company and playing pretty well whether you won or not?
CURTIS STRANGE: Well, I’m really not in that company because everyone you mentioned won a green jacket except me. But you know, it was the first major of the year and Augusta is a special place.
But you go up against guys on a day‑to‑day basis, you see them every day in the locker room, practice tee or whatever, so it wasn’t that big a thing. Nicklaus it was, because he was before me. But the rest of the guys, you went head‑to‑head a lot of times.
They are great champions, and if you did prevail with a leaderboard like that, you accomplished something because they were great players.
Q — If you could call kind of answer this, that would be greatly appreciated. I was just going back and re‑reading a Jaime Diaz story from about eight weeks where he was talking about Tiger and said, “The Emperor has no clothes.” Wondering in your own minds individually what you think he’s risking potentially by playing, if he does play?
PAUL AZINGER: Doug Ferguson asked about embarrassment. All we see with Tiger is the tip of the iceberg. We don’t see the whole iceberg. We only see Tiger show up. We can only know what the state of his game was the last time we saw him. It’s impossible to know if he is continuing the path of over‑engineering or if he wants to be the best player again.
The best player hits it pin‑high the most often and gets it up‑and‑down. The best player doesn’t fight a right miss and a duck hook. He reins that in, and when you rein that in and get the ball going a direction you want it to go and you’re reasonably around the sweet spot, you have to get it pin‑high. The weeks you have a chance to win you are the pin‑high master and you get up‑and‑down and you make putts.
I think it’s so easy to fall in the trap of technique. There’s no position at the top that brings it down on autopilot. There’s no two swings that have ever looked the same. It’s hard to watch the changes happen.
And what we don’t know is what’s under the tip of the iceberg. How hard has he worked on being the best player, not the best swinger. That’s what we don’t know.
CURTIS STRANGE: If he’s healthy, let’s take for granted he’s healthy. I think he needs to play. Now, I know when we all started to go bad when we were 40‑ish or above, you don’t feel like it ‑‑ first of all, you’re not really as motivated as you were when you were 22 years old. You have family and friends and being a daddy and all of the above.
You know, there’s a tug that when you’re on TOUR, you want to be home with your kids. And when you’re home with your kids, you want to be back on TOUR, because that really is your profession. So there is a tug back and forth and everybody who has ever played the game fought that, and he’s at that stage.
So is he motivated to get out there and bust his ass like he used to. But then, I still think, I don’t care how much he’s practicing at home, it’s a different animal. I think when you’re playing poorly, I think you have to play competitive golf because that’s where in the environment you’re focused, you’re intense, you’re into the game and everything about it 24/7.
But that’s tough to do because it’s very, very easy to say, ah, I’m going to take this week off or I’m not going to go out and do this.
But when a three‑point shooter starts missing shots, he needs to keep shooting, right. I think that’s what he needs to do is keep playing.
ANDY NORTH: Well, I agree with Curtis in the fact that you need the reps. You need to be there. You need to do that. And if he’s healthy, you know, it’s time to come play.
The hardest thing for him, and every single one of us who have ever played this game have gone through struggles. You wondered if you’ve ever come out of them. I mean, every single one of us.
But for most of us, we could go to the West Coast or we could go to three or four weeks in a row and play, and in your mind, you knew it didn’t matter what you shot but you needed to go through this to get back to where you could play again.
And I think that’s a little bit of what Curtis is saying is that you have to play enough golf that it becomes natural and you’re not thinking about technique. You’re just out playing golf again. And I hope he gets to that point soon.
PAUL AZINGER: The biggest difference with Tiger and the rest is that the guy can show up on the West Coast not playing well but needing to play and be reasonably anonymous. Tiger cannot be anonymous. Every single shot he takes is documented and that’s a whole ‘nother animal, too. He really does deal with a lot.
Q — Paul, you mentioned embarrassment. It would seem given what we witnessed since December at Isleworth, exposing your short game to what are arguably the hardest green complexes ever constructed, would be a little risky.
PAUL AZINGER: Well, you know, we alluded to embarrassment, and it’s something that you fight every time you go out there. You never want to do anything stupid, but when you’re playing great, those stupid things don’t pop in your head. And he’s got to go out and probably exorcise some of those demons. The first little pitch shot he’s got to hit, not chip shot, the first little pitch shot he’s got to hit will be microanalyzed, and he knows that. There’s a big microscope on that guy.
I don’t think he’d show up unless he feels like he solved that problem. It’s not a difficult fix. You get the shaft to 90 at impact and the bounce pays you a visit. He was leaned forward a little bit and getting the shaft ahead. It shouldn’t be difficult for Tiger to fix that. I don’t think he had the yips. I think he just was in a terrible setup position to deliver the club.
I don’t know, nobody knows what to expect, but I’m telling you, hopefully he’s focused on that, and he does have to get his reps in, and this is a tough first place to start.
Q — One name not getting a lot of notice is Dustin Johnson, he was out for the six‑month absence and since he’s been back, he’s won once and lost in a playoff. He says he’s a different guy, a different man. After all the close calls when he wasn’t as mentally sharp as he should have been, is he now ready to contend for a major?
CURTIS STRANGE: I have him on my list of things, of pretournament items. He is No. 3. He’s behind Augusta National and Rory McIlroy ‑‑ actually four because of Tiger.
I think between Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth, you have two young kids who have got the world sitting out in front of them. And Dustin has something that very few other people have and that’s the length, and he looks like he controls it well enough.
I just think he could win as easily this week as Rory McIlroy, simply because his length, and I think he’s playing well enough. His confidence is high. And you’ve got to remember, he’s had a chance to win three other majors. So I’m glad you brought his name up because it’s on the top of my list.
PAUL AZINGER: And I said again, because he has contended in majors before; he led the U.S. Open going into the final day, and the mishap there at Whistling Straits is pretty well documented. His natural ball flight fits the course. He hits it high and he likes to draw the ball a little bit.
Yeah, I don’t think it would surprise anybody. He can overpower any golf course. And the key to that overpowering of a golf course like that ‑‑ how well does Dustin Johnson know Augusta National and will he devour the par 5s.
ANDY NORTH: One aspect of Dustin Johnson’s game that gets overlooked is he’s a pretty good putter, and I think he’s a very good putter from eight, ten, 12 feet, and at Augusta National, you get so many of those.
So the combination of his length and the fact that he’s a pretty darned good short‑ to middle‑length putter, that’s a nice combination.
Q — Curtis touched on it, does his game set up do you think particularly well for Augusta, because interestingly, of all the majors, that’s the one he’s had the least success at.
ANDY NORTH: I think his game fits there. I think the fact that it takes some guys a lot longer to figure the golf course out than others; and maybe he’s put more pressure on himself to play well there because it means so much to him. But it’s a golf course that he surely has the physical ability to figure out and to play well. But figuring it out completely is the whole deal.
CURTIS STRANGE: I agree with Andy completely.
PAUL AZINGER: I do, too. Strategically, you go into Augusta National and try to take the place apart. The architect’s sole intention is to get you and you have to go in there and figure out where to be.
You have to know that place like the back of your hand and it takes awhile, that’s all.
Q — One last thing on this. There’s been a lot about him taking six months off, there were stories on Golf.com and so forth. Watching him over the years, did he seem like a guy that had the physical potential but was missing something, maybe emotionally, mentally, whatever the approach might be, to get the most out of his game?
CURTIS STRANGE: You know, I don’t think he’s missing anything. Some people critique his golf swing and it’s a little different but as Paul said earlier, everybody’s swing is different. Look at Lee Trevino, who ever would have said in 1968 he would have become the best ball‑striker you’ve ever seen other than Ben Hogan?
Everybody’s got their own swing and that’s a good thing. That’s why I think Butch Harmon is so good for Dustin; he won’t change anything. He’ll work on his strengths.
We have to remember, at the PGA, he was very unlucky, really, because of the design of the golf course and the last whole incident, the bunker and whatever. He had a bad last round at Pebble Beach. He really should have won the U.S. Open there. At the British Open, he was coming down the stretch, hit one out‑of‑bounds. But my point is, he’s been there. He’s been there numerous times so he know what is it feels like.
So I don’t think it would surprise anybody that he will play well. To talk about his six‑month absence, I think he practiced. He looked like ‑‑ he said he worked out, he stayed in shape. He came back and he’s proven that because he’s come back and played so well this year. I think, you know, he’s got a newborn; I think he’s got himself together and again, it wouldn’t surprise anybody.
PAUL AZINGER: A lot of times, Ryder Cup comes before major championships, not always, but in most cases, and he’s played Ryder Cups. Now that he has a baby, I think Curtis is right. He’s settled in a little bit and you find out who you really are. Maybe there’s a little more discipline there, so we’ll see.
CURTIS STRANGE: When you finally realize, I only have one chance in this world and I have this talent ‑‑ first of all, he’s fortunate, he’s 6‑3 or 6‑4 and got a perfect body for sport and second of all, he’s got the talent to play this game.
So let’s take advantage. You don’t want to have regrets later on. Let’s take advantage, work hard or 15 years or a career length and see what I can do. You know, he can do things.
Q — First of all, the long‑range weather forecast is for a lot of rain, especially on Saturday perhaps. Does that help Tiger at all or is that fairly meaningless?
ANDY NORTH: First of all, if you’re buying stocks based on the weather report ten days from now, I want to sell you some things.
But I don’t think it makes any difference what the weather conditions are for these guys. If you’re playing decent, it doesn’t matter. If you’re playing poorly, you know, it’s not going to have an effect.
Q –But Tiger specifically, given his problems.
ANDY NORTH: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it makes any difference.
Q — Anybody else? Hey, I’m just saying what the weather forecast is. I’m not saying it’s going to be accurate.
PAUL AZINGER: Softer greens makes that place a little bit easier for everybody, to a point. But it’s still dicey around the greens. That’s one of the toughest places in the world to hit a pitch shot. A lot of times you’ve got to judge one hop off the sticky stuff and then on the green; two hops off the sticky stuff and then on the greens. You’ve got to be pretty well dialed in no matter what the weather is doing.
Q — Sort of a little more off‑subject but still Augusta related. In your primes, each of you, did you ever play in the Par 3 Tournament? Was there something in the back of your head that said you didn’t want to win it just based on what’s happened over the years that nobody has won the Par 3 and gone on to win the Masters?
ANDY NORTH: Absolutely. I know one year there, I made four birdies the first five or six holes or whatever it was and I was leading the thing and I put two in the water on purpose on the sixth hole just to make sure that nothing silly happened.
CURTIS STRANGE: Well, I didn’t play every year in the Par 3, just because I think it was time to rest, either practice a little bit and go home and rest before this marathon started on Thursday morning. I didn’t play because I was superstitious about it, you can trust me on that one. I never even thought about that.
But I think more so than anything else, it’s talked about, it’s ridiculous as we all know, if you win the Par 3 you can’t win the tournament. No, I never gave it much thought.
PAUL AZINGER: I wanted to win the Par 3 in worst way. It’s my favorite course in the world. I think if I had to play my last round, it would be the Par 3 Course at Augusta. I wouldn’t have to hit a driver (laughter). I love it there.
Q — Your overall impressions of the state of the golf course, where it is right now, and then also kind of curious if you see any kind of a sort of track bias in the course favoring distance and if that’s a good or a bad thing.
ANDY NORTH: I think first of all, obviously distance there is a big deal, and it’s been a big deal from day one ‑‑ not just because the length has been added over ten years.
Even 25 years ago, the longest players had an advantage there because they could fly it up on the tops of hills or even on the downslopes, on the back side of these hills; where the shorter guys played into the hills, and that’s the case today.
I think there’s a couple of holes that they have changed the character of the hole a little bit by adding too many trees and getting a little bit tight, like 11, for example. There used to be a way ‑‑ you could make a decision on the tee at 11 years ago to go either way left or way right.
Now they are dictating to you there’s only one way to play and that’s down the middle of the fairway. I think that’s really the only thing that I don’t particularly like. But I think overall, they have done a really good job of keeping the golf course up to speed.
Most of the guys today are playing the same‑length shots into the holes that we did 30 years ago with different equipment.
CURTIS STRANGE: One thing I keep thinking about is that over the course of the last 15 years or so when the big hitter has become more prevalent, you still have guys that don’t hit it very far.
So the different between the long and the short is greater than it ever was, and when you go to a place like Augusta and length is such an advantage, the Zach Johnsons of the world ‑‑ and not to pick on him; but the guys who are average length, not short but average length are playing behind the 8‑ball. Such a bigger deal than we did.
So that’s why, I believe, the length is a bigger factor than it used to be. And it was always a big hitter’s golf course, especially without the rough.
PAUL AZINGER: It’s been a bomber’s paradise and every once in awhile you can sprinkle in some guy like a Trevor Immelman or a Zach Johnson, and they jump in there and contend.
Nobody’s mentioned Bubba Watson, but boy, has anybody ever been more suited to a golf course. The big surprise about Bubba Watson is he’s always been kind of a below average putter I felt, and to see a guy like that, you never thought anybody could win a Masters that wasn’t just a phenomenal putter. But his ball flight off the tee is a right‑hander’s draw and it goes a mile, and Bubba just overpowers the course.
I think Bubba Watson should be the pretournament favorite this year going in. He’s confident and knows how to play the place obviously and he’s a guy that can truly overpower it with a phenomenal wedge game.
CURTIS STRANGE: One more thing on the length of certain players. We’re not saying that an average‑length hitter or a little bit below average can’t win at Augusta. But when you look at the holes, think about how precise they have to be for four days to play with a guy or play against a guy who is hitting it 50 yards by him, sometimes even more than that because of into the hill and over the hill.
All of you guys and ladies that have been there understand that all that. So I could win there; Zach could win there. But we have to be so precise with second shots around the greens, so much better than the big hitter, because he’s giving up ‑‑ par 5s are all reachable for him. Par 4s are so much shorter than they are for the average hitter. It’s just so much tougher for the average hitter there.
Q — Every year there seems to be two or three guys age 40‑plus who finish among the Top‑10 at Augusta, including a pair of 50‑somethings last year. Obviously familiarity at Augusta is a key component but are there other factors that bring out the best in guys like Couples and Jiménez every year?
PAUL AZINGER: They can still play at that age. They just maybe don’t hit it as far. A guy turns 50, he doesn’t forget how to play. He can still play. And guys, they have got the experience that is required and they generally have the nerve that is required, especially somebody like Freddie who was in contention a lot on the Senior Tour and winning tournaments out there.
Winning is winning no matter where you’re winning. You know, familiarity can breed contempt sometimes, but it also can be a great experience, and Freddie Couples and those guys, Jiménez, Bernhard Langer, those guys, they can do it there I think it. But like Curtis said, they have got to be super precise.
ANDY NORTH: Look at the year Langer had last year. He was a Top‑10 there, also. There are a lot of people that talked about him maybe receiving a captain’s pick at The Ryder Cup, that’s how well he played all year.
The golf ball doesn’t know how old you are or who is hitting it. You’ve just got to go play golf shots, and the fact that some of these guys that played the tournament 20, 25 times, that really helps.
CURTIS STRANGE: I just think that those three guys and last year, what they did, completely proves our point. I think sometimes we tend to overstate things, but we don’t overstate the importance of knowing Augusta National and where to hit it and when to go and when not to go.
Those three guys last year, playing well in their 50s, just proves our point all together; that you obviously have to play well, but they have played there many, many times.
Q — A lot of Canadians are going to be watching Mike Weir as usual but they are also going to be looking at a guy names Corey Conners, an amateur. Outside of the knowledge of the course, what are the biggest challenge a guy like him is going to be facing next weekend?
PAUL AZINGER: Visual intimidation. It’s the most visually intimidating place you’ll ever go, that’s for sure.
ANDY NORTH: Well, he will be paired with a former champion, which is cool.
CURTIS STRANGE: I was just going to say, walking through the locker room or the practice tee, walking beside some of the old champions that go back just for the dinner and hang around and walking maybe beside Tiger if he plays or Rory.
When you’re an amateur there, you’re a deer in headlights all week long. I was fortunate to play there was an amateur and I think the one thing I would tell the young man is pace yourself. Get there early and play but pace yourself, don’t wear yourself out.
But get there and get over the historical value of the place and get over as much as you can everything that you can control, and then, just go play golf.
Media Contact: Andy Hall, firstname.lastname@example.org