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A different kind of road to the Masters
by Associated Press


The road to the Masters starts in Florida. For Tiger Woods, the first leg was only a short drive down the street from his house to the Bay Hill Invitational, a tournament he is trying to win for the fourth straight time.

The rest of the road is one big speed trap.

Woods conceded as much Tuesday when asked whether the debate about Augusta National's all-male membership was hurting the game.

Never mind that Woods is going after an unprecedented third straight Masters title. Or that he has won twice in three tournaments since his return from knee surgery. Or that he feels better about his game than he has in two years.

"It's become not just about a golf tournament anymore," Woods said after a long pause and a deep breath. "There's where it's gotten to now. It used to be the first major of the year, and everyone looked forward to that.

"Now, it's not that anymore, for a number of reasons."

Perhaps he was referring to the groups that plan to protest somewhere outside the gates of Augusta National, or the number of questions about the club thrown in Woods' direction before he hits his opening tee shot.

Otherwise, there is only one reason the Masters is about more than just golf.

Martha Burk and her National Council of Women's Organization wanted Augusta National to invite its first female member before the Masters. Club chairman Hootie Johnson said no.

Everything else seems to be an afterthought.

"All the peripheral stuff is going to detract a lot from the tournament," Nick Price said. "Maybe on Thursday, everything will have been forgotten and we'll be on our way."

It's the three weeks leading up to the event that makes this a different road to the Masters.

Jim Furyk was talking to a PGA Tour staff member about the Masters a few weeks ago when he mentioned the fifth hole at Augusta National, which has been lengthened by 20 yards to bring the bunker down the left side into play.

"He had no idea there were changes to No. 5," Furyk said.

This is Furyk's eighth straight year playing the Masters, and he knows the routine. When the PGA Tour leaves the West Coast, he starts hearing questions about the Masters. They gradually increase through the Florida Swing and hit full force at The Players Championship.

Is his game suited for Augusta National?

How does he prepare to putt on greens as quick as linoleum?

Can anyone stop Woods?

The buildup is as much an annual rite of spring as the Masters itself, only this year Furyk noticed a difference because of the single issue that overshadows the tournament.

"I'm a little leery this time," Furyk said. "I'm worried about having to take polls that ask if it's right or wrong. To have someone run up and ask three questions, yes or no, that's upsetting, because that's not how to express your opinion."

Davis Love III was trying to figure out what to say - or not to say - in the three weeks leading to the Masters.

"It's turned into a circus, and we shouldn't even be part of it," he said. "No matter what you say, everyone is going to have to ask you about it again the next day. All that is going to be in the newspapers and television. When we get inside the gates, it's going to be golf."

Even getting inside the gates has become a topic of conversation. Richmond County officials are still trying to sort out where Burk, Jesse Jackson, the one-man Ku Klux Klan and some anti-Burk factions will be allowed to protest.

This would be a great time to be an amateur and stay on property in the Crow's Nest.

"It's going to be a joke trying to get to the golf tournament," Woods said. "Maybe I'll just parachute in." Joking aside, Woods would rather the controversy vanish and the Masters return to being the first major championship of the year.

"But that's not the reality of it," he said. "When we all get there, it's going to be interesting for all of us to see what happens."

Even more interesting is what happens when the tournament is over.

Johnson has said categorically that there will not be a female member soon. Burk says she has already won because of the attention given to Augusta National's 71-year history with no women in green jackets.

Woods says the Masters has been tarnished, but maybe not for long.

He compared the controversy to when Charlie Sifford, one of the few black golfers of his time, was never invited to the Masters in the 1960s and early '70s.

"If you would have said that would tarnish the Masters ... but did it ever?" Woods said. "I don't think it did, and I don't think this will, either. I think eventually it will go away, it will be resolved and Augusta and the Masters will be what it is."

Not many players are sure what to make of the Masters until they get there. Most just want to get inside the green gates. Maybe then, they'll notice the change at No. 5.

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