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Golf: Some things to ponder about The Masters

By Ron Kroichick
San Francisco Chronicle
Two years running, the Masters has lurched to an unsatisfying conclusion. In 2007 and again last year, the final round offered few birdies, little excitement, champions with no major pedigree and none of the enduring images Augusta National so often produces ó Tiger Woods chipping, Phil Mickelson exulting, Greg Norman collapsing.
But next week’s return to the hilly fairways and picturesque pines brings hope of renewed energy.
There are abundant plot lines heading into this year’s Masters:
– TIGER’S BACK: As if you needed a reminder, Woods ó fresh off Sunday’s stirring win over Sean O’Hair at Bay Hill ó will play in a major for the first time since his one-legged, 91-hole triumph in last year’s U.S. Open. Augusta is his personal playground in many respects: four wins overall and top-five finishes in seven of the past nine years. Then again, he hasn’t won there since 2005.
– PADDY SLAM: Just imagine the hype if Woods or Mickelson drove down Magnolia Lane next week seeking his third consecutive major. It’s not quite the same for Padraig Harrington, who took advantage of Woods’ absence to win the British Open and PGA Championship. Harrington finished in the top-10 in each of the past two Masters, so it’s easy to picture him in contention.
– SHARK’S RETURN: The mere thought boggles the mind: Norman back at Augusta National, site of so much angst and frustration for him over the years. This will be his first Masters start since 2002, courtesy of his top-four finish in last year’s British Open. Norman owns no fewer than nine top-five finishes at Augusta ó and zero wins. Ouch.
– TEENAGE FRENZY: Masters officials now permit kids to accompany ticket-toting adults into the tournament. Who knew this rule also applied to players? Three dynamic international teenagers ó 19-year-old Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, 18-year-old Danny Lee of New Zealand and 17-year-old Ryo Ishikawa of Japan ó will be in the field next week.
– HERE COMES LEFTY: Every time it’s tempting to dismiss Mickelson, he injects himself back into the conversation. He’s already won twice this season, inching tantalizingly close to the No. 1 world ranking (until Woods won last week).
– COURSE CHATTER: All the efforts to strengthen Augusta National have led to grinding, high-scoring, unappealing tournaments the past two years. Bad weather was partly to blame, but Chairman Billy Payne must find a way to restore the roars. Keep the greens at only half warp-speed. Order friendlier hole-locations. Tell Mother Nature to calm down.

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