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Mediate impressed with changes at Augusta

| Monday, April 8, 2002

Rocco Mediate and Paul Azinger were sitting in a corporate jet Friday morning, fidgeting nervously as it made its way from Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. to Augusta, Ga.

"Paul's been out on Tour for 19 years, and I've been out for 17, and we couldn't believe how excited we were to be playing a practice round … at any golf course," Mediate said. "But everyone's heard so much about what they've done."

Mediate referred to the Augusta National Golf Club, the 285 yards added to the length of the course and the rest of the changes to the storied course that will be on display this week at the 66th Masters.

And once his practice round, plus a few extra holes, had ended, the Greensburg native had a hard time containing his awe over what he had seen.

"Just absolutely awesome. They really did a job on this place," Mediate said. "What they've done is taken this course back to where it was in the '60s and '70s, making the course play more like it was intended to."

Mediate got a quick lesson as to how the changes would affect the field this week when he hit his drive on No. 1 "as good as I can hit it" — and the ball came to rest 10 yards short of the bunker on the right side of the fairway.

"I had 187 yards to the stick for my second shot and hit a 4-iron," he said. "Before, I'd hit 8-iron for my second shot. Unless the wind is blowing directly from behind us, I don't think anyone will try to blow it over that bunker."

As he made his way around Augusta National, Mediate said one thing became apparent in a big way: While those additional 285 yards will thin out the list of contenders, what's really going to define this year's champion is ball-striking.

"This course now brings the cream of the crop to the top even more," he said. "You absolutely have to be striking your ball well. I come away from that round with even more confidence in my game than before I went. If, when I get up there, I'm hitting it as well as I was at The Players Championship, then I feel that I'm going to do well."

Other Mediate highlights of Friday's adventure at Augusta:

= The par-4 seventh hole used to be a long iron or fairway wood, leaving a shot of about 80 yards to an elevated, tricky green. Now, it's a driver and a 110-yard second shot.

"There are trees everywhere now," he said. "Guys will be hitting as much as a 7-iron if the wind's in your face."

= The par-5 eighth, in Mediate's mind, wasn't a two-shot hole before. It certainly isn't now, unless it's straight downwind. He hit driver, 4-wood and had 50 yards left.

= The tee at the par-4 ninth was moved back 35 yards. If the player hits it down the left side, he could have as little as an 8-iron left. Down the right, it's perhaps a 6-iron.

= A thicket of trees disappeared behind the 11th tee to make it possible to move it back 30 yards.

"I hit 5-iron in there. Last year, people were hitting wedges. There will be no wedges this year," Mediate said.

= He laughed when describing the 13th.

"Driver now goes where 3-wood went before. The idea is to draw it around the corner, but if you hit it straight, you won't go through the fairway," he said. "I had 210 yards to the front with a good drive. It could be anything from a 2-iron to a 5-iron for the second shot, depending on the conditions."

= The 14th is nearly 50 yards longer and will require 6- and 7-irons for the approach shot as opposed to 8s and 9s from a year ago.

= "Oh my goodness," he said of the 18th. "It's now 295 to the bunker on the left," he said. "It's an easier drive for me because I can't even think about getting to that thing. I hit it as good as I can hit it, and I had 185 left and hit 4-iron to the front of the green."

When Mediate played, Augusta National was dry, firm and fast.

"I think they told us the greens were at 14 (on the stimpmeter), and they were talking about having to slow them down. It is absolutely perfect, and people aren't even going to be able to tell that a blade of grass has been moved," he said.

The weather forecast for the week is not particularly good. Rain seems to be a possibility through Friday, and Mediate is one of those who believes if it gets wet, the degree of difficulty goes up significantly.

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