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BIG-NAME CHAMPS ARE PAR FOR COURSE

There are no accidental winners of the Masters, no look-what-I-founds.

Augusta National's not a place where fringe players rise to score the unforeseen, unimagined victory that ushers them out of obscurity and grants them everlasting status among their peers.

The Masters has a most discerning eye, an inherent bias toward players whose worthiness is unquestioned. The winner of the year's first major is seldom greeted with a chorus as "Who?", as it was when, say, Shaun Micheel and Ben Curtis shed their anonymity in the PGA Championship and British Open of 2003.

It's been 17 years since the green jacket has been fitted to a player of minor reputation, and there's a temptation to exempt that case on the basis of special circumstance. Larry Mize had won only once on tour, and that four years previous, when he chipped in from 140 feet to defeat Greg Norman on the second playoff hole (No. 11) in 1987. Yet Mize's triumph was immensely popular and seemingly ordained; he's an Augusta native.

Ever since Mize buckled Norman's knees and pierced his heart, the Masters, which begins on Thursday, has picked its champions while paying strict attention to past accomplishment. A Justin Rose is entitled to reign atop the leader board after two rounds, as he did last year. A Chris DiMarco is granted the thrill of co-leading after three rounds, as he did last year. But in the end, the championship inevitably rounds up the usual suspects, players time-tested and globally acknowledged, or those riding a hot streak. Mike Weir triumphed twice in the early months of '03 before tacking on Augusta.

Sometimes the Masters serves as validation of a player's sublime ability. Defending champion Phil Mickelson and '98 winner Mark O'Meara fit into that category, having combined for 35 career titles before landing their first majors here. Other times winning at Augusta defined an era of individual greatness, as it has for Jack Nicklaus (six Masters' wins), Nick Faldo (three) and Tiger Woods (three). What's clear is that experience matters. There have been seven repeat champions since Mize bottled lightning.

The trend has made decided favorites of a select group, either the Big Four of Woods, Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els, or the Big Five for those inclined to include Retief Goosen, which seems prudent given his two U.S. Open titles and splendid play this season. They're the world's top-five rated players, and all are familiar with the pressures of a Sunday back nine against Augusta National. The two Masters non-winners in the quintet -- Els and Goosen -- have placed second.

"This golf course asks a lot on the back nine on Sunday," said Padraig Harrington, a member of the secondary group of contenders. "As I say, it's precision play all the way. You don't get away with much at all."

"If you look at guys who are in the top in the world rankings and the guys who have won major championships, you know they can handle the heat," Woods said. "You know they are not going to make a mistake.

"Playing against people that have never won a golf tournament might be a little bit different. They don't know how their emotions are going to handle it and their swing is going to handle it, their putting stroke; they don't know. So when you're going head-to-head against somebody that has proven that they can win at a high level consistently, that mind-set might change a little bit of your course strategy."

Augusta continues to undergo changes aimed at combating technological advances, specifically drivers that provide greater distance and balls that offer increased control. The course was lengthened substantially in 2002, rewarding longer hitters. This year, there's a thicker cut of rough intended to penalize those who've willingly traded length for accuracy. Nicklaus isn't so sure the desired effect will be attained.

"The rough out here is not really rough, just a semi, make the ball hard to control and a bit of a flier," Nicklaus said. "To those guys, it means nothing.

"If you look at the power that's out there, those are the guys that are dominating or on the list that you're talking about, every one of them. The game today, it is good golf by today's standards, not by what my standards were, and I don't mean that in the way that I played better golf. I mean that in the way that the game today -- if I'm incorrect, correct me, but I think none of the top five last week were in the top 100 in driving accuracy. . . . Now, I always thought hitting the ball straight as part of the game."

Weir and Woods demur, saying Augusta's greens could be quicker than ever come, exceedingly difficult to hold from the fairway, let alone the rough.

"I think there's still a big emphasis on hitting the fairway, and maybe more so than I've ever seen here, actually," Weir said. "You don't want to be firing at these flags out of that cut because as firm as they are right now you're not going to be able to hold the ball."

"It's significant, it really is," Woods said. "With the greens being this firm and this fast right now, hitting a shot out of the second cut, you just take a little bit of spin off the golf ball, and spin is everything when you get the greens this hard and this fast."

No matter the tinkering, history still favors the Big Five. Sunday could provide another spellbinding finish, a captivating encore to last year's stretch duel between Mickelson and Els.

"I think it's really great for golf right now that every one of us are playing well," said Singh, who's ranked No. 1. "I'm enjoying it."

Every surprise contender, every could-have-been champion, has a tale of woe, a rationalization for what went wrong when the pressure mounted. But, for those who've never won here, the pressure is relentless.

"This golf course is such that sometimes you do feel like it owes you," Woods said. "But in the end, if you look back, you've got to go out there and earn it."
e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com