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Final nine on golfers' minds

| Thursday, April 7, 2005

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- From the moment the invitation arrives in the mail, players start thinking about Sunday on the back nine at Augusta National Golf Club.

Legend says that's where the Masters begins, a collection of holes as famous as any in the world that can also be the most fearsome.

The truth of the matter is, the better players in the elite field come to walk among the azaleas and dogwoods starting this morning with one thought in mind: play the first 63 holes to be in position for the final nine.

"As far as the back nine, yes, it might have the most pressure or be the most difficult because of the pressure," said Tiger Woods, who knows something about dealing with that pressure having won the Masters twice. "And, overall testing of your short game and your iron play, your creativeness, your putting, yes, it's very difficult. The U.S. Open would be obviously just pure ball-striking and lob-wedge play around the greens."

Amen Corner, the two water-guarded par 5s (No. 13 and 15), the severe par 3 16th and the demanding drive on the 18th all make for a nerve-rattling late Sunday afternoon.

But while the back is all of that for the players, it might provide the greatest theatre in major-championship golf.

It certainly yielded an Academy Award-type performance last year when the pins were not all in their traditional tough Sunday placements, allowing players to go at some flags previously inaccessible.

Phil Mickelson used that accessibility to shoot a 31 on the back nine that included five birdies in his last seven holes, including an 18-footer on the final hole that gave him his first major championship.

"It was an experience we don't get in golf very often as players," Mickelson said this week. "I would sometimes wonder what it would be like to be a basketball player on the court with 15,000 people yelling, how loud it would be. And it was very loud here last year. It was an experience I'll never forget."

Last year's final round wasn't limited to Mickelson's heroics. Ernie Els, who finished a shot behind Mickelson, eagled the 13th; K.J. Choi eagled the par-4 11th, and Padraig Harrington and Kirk Triplett aced the 16th hole.

"It was incredible. I've never, ever felt something like that," Els said. "I've played U.S. Opens where the crowd can really get up, like in New York at Bethpage, but I wasn't in the mix there. For me last year, that Sunday was the most special Sunday afternoon stroll I've ever had. It was just electric, really. It was a wonderful afternoon."

Can that sort of scenario play itself out again in four days?

Masters chairman Hootie Johnson thinks so. Especially since there have been no plans modify the Sunday pin placements.

"I expect you'll see them pretty close to the same spot," Johnson said Wednesday. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Mickelson certainly won't argue with getting a look at those same placements.

"The officials here set the course up very difficult on Thursday, and we didn't see very many scores under par. And that allowed them to be set up in a way that would allow an exciting Sunday finish. You're not going to get an argument from me if they're in the same spots. I certainly enjoyed it."

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