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Lawrie in spotlight, again

Paul Lawrie could have quieted the critics and found peace of mind if he had validated his 1999 British Open title through his subsequent play. Instead, he coasted along winless for almost a decade.

The Scotsman might have swayed opinion and defended his reputation if he'd done anything of note in the 10 years prior to this one. Instead, because he slipped quietly into the background not long after Carnoustie, that British Open is remembered more for Jean Van de Velde's folly than Lawrie's final-round 67 and his ensuing playoff victory over Van de Velde and Justin Leonard.

As a result of circumstance, Lawrie wasn't considered a major champion so much as an accidental major champion. He felt slighted and it ate him up.

"I tried, to be fair, for a wee while, to change the way that people saw it, and I failed miserably to be honest," Lawrie said. "It doesn't bother me anymore. I just one day, I just thought, 'man, what are you battling against this for. There's just no point. Just get on with it. Just play your golf. People will respect you if you win tournaments. If you don't win tournaments, then people are not going to be bothered really.' I've just been trying to do what I do and go home and not get too upset about it. There was awhile where I kind of let it annoy me quite a lot. But not much you can do."

No one came from further off the radar than Lawrie among those populating the leader board after Thursday's first round at Augusta National. Playing his first Masters round since 2004 thanks to a top 50 world ranking, Lawrie ripped through the final six holes 4-under par and carded a 69, good for a share of second place -- two shots behind major-less Brit Lee Westwood.

Lawrie's game is in better form at 43 than it was at 33, or even when he won his major. He's worked hard and smart to improve his play on and around the greens. He's restructured his routines to meet the demands of the sport.

"I certainly practice and do the right things more now than I ever used to," Lawrie said. "I used to kind of hit a lot of balls. I would hit sort of 500, 600, 700 balls a day. That's not the way you're going to be a better player. The way to be a better player is to spend three hours a day chipping and putting, and working on the mental side at night. I've been doing a lot of that, so it's been much better."

There was no escaping the coincidence that heightened Lawrie's relevance Thursday. For the longest time the day belonged to Sweden's Henrik Stenson, who was sailing along ahead of everybody at 6-under par. And then Stenson had his Van de Velde moment, making a quadruple-bogey 8 on the final hole. It was a triple bogey by Van de Velde on the 72nd hole at Carnoustie that afforded Lawrie the opportunity of a playoff.

Stenson would have been right at home had he maintained his position. A European hasn't won the Masters since Spain's Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999, but after Round One they're everywhere. Sweden Peter Hanson is a shot behind Westwood along with South African Louis Oosthuizen. Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez is at minus-3. So is Italy's Francesco Molinari along with Americans Ben Crane, Jason Dufner and Bubba Watson.

The threats of stormy weather never materialized. Wet and softened Augusta National received a reprieve. The competitors did not. Pick, clean and place was not made an option and balls carrying mud were sent toward greens by players clueless how the shot would react.

"It was a huge issue," said Stewart Cink, who shot 71. "All day it was a huge issue. It just takes a lot of guts to aim away from some of these greens and hit it right towards the trouble when you know what's waiting if the ball doesn't take the mud effect. It's an inexact science."

Tournament officials negated the welcoming effect of soft greens with challenging pin placements. Westwood's caddie, Billy Foster, went on a pre-round reconnaissance mission and informed his boss it would be a day for caution.

"Billy had sent me a text, because he had walked around the golf course saying that the pins were tough," Westwood said. "He used slightly more flowery language than that, but we'll stick to tough.

"So I knew it was a day for patience where 20 feet, 25 feet under a lot of holes was going to be good. And this course gives you a chance if it's soft, but it also takes a bit away because it plays longer when it's soft.

"I had one mud ball out there which was a cause of a bogey on 10, and I know Jim [Furyk] had a couple of mud balls, as well, which is just unfortunate when we didn't have as much rain, but all of these things have to be taken into consideration. You know, it's never an easy golf course."

None of the big guns fired. Four-time winner Tiger Woods bogeyed the last two holes for a 72. U.S. Open champ Rory McIlroy birdied the last two holes for a 71. Three-time winner Phil Mickelson needed two birdies on the last four holes to escape with a 74.

"This golf course is playing too difficult to go super low on," Woods said. "What Henrik was doing early, that was pretty impressive. Some of these pins are really tough. No one was tearing it up."