AUGUSTA, Ga., April 10 (UPI) -- The Masters, where history and tradition have been held in highest regard for generations, gets underway for the 66th time Thursday. On this occasion, however, the air is filled with the unmistakable winds of change.
The azaleas, dogwoods and pines still line the fairways, although the flowering shrubs are past their peak this year. The huge oak tree behind the clubhouse still serves as a meeting place for people who see each other just once a year. And Magnolia Lane continues to beckon those who follow in the footsteps of the sport's legends.
But Jack Nicklaus, six times a winner of the Masters, will not be playing --- his back having given way to the ravages of countless golf swings. Speculation is rampant that Arnold Palmer may be making his last competitive appearance at the Augusta National Golf Club.
Although past champions receive an invitation for life, the current chairman of the tournament asked three of them not to play this year. One of them, 1967 champion Gay Brewer, was so upset that he refused to take part in the past champion's dinner.
Instead of Nicklaus, the 21st Century golf fan will be able to watch Charles Howell III. Instead of Brewer, there will be Matt Kuchar. There will be no Doug Ford, but there will be Kevin Sutherland. And rather than Billy Casper, the winner of three major championships and one of truly great players of his time, it will be possible to watch Adam Scott, Niclas Fasth or Toru Taniguchi.
Not only are the faces changing, the playing field has undergone the most extensive rennovation in the tournament's history. In an attempt to offset the technological onslaught that makes 300-yard drives routine rather than unique, half the holes at the Augusta National have been lengthened.
"It takes us a while to make a decision down here," Masters chairman Hootie Johnson said on the eve of the tournament. "But the rapid pace of change has kind of speeded up our decision-making process.
"Last year before the tournament, we recognized we had to make some changes. And during the tournament last year, we saw that we had to make even more changes than we expected.
"I was at the (par-4) 11th hole last year and saw Phil Mickelson's drive come down there. It was so far down the fairway I thought he had chipped out of the trees. After he hit his second shot, we measured it and he was 94 yards from the green.
"I said right then that there was no question about what we were about. We need to be aggressive.
"We weren't concerned about the scores the players were shooting. Of course, if you have shorter clubs in your hand for the second shots, that leads to lower scores. But what we hated was that time after time the players were pulling out a sand wedge or a wedge to hit into our par-4s."
As Johnson was conducting his pre-Masters news conference Wednesday, an off-and-on drizzle was making the course softer. The possibility of showers exists throughout the week.
The fact that the course is longer, plus the uncertainty of the weather, make the first major championship of 2002 something of a mystery.
But there is little mystery about who will have the best chance of contending. The usual suspects have captured most of the attention going into the event.
Defending champion Tiger Woods has won just once this year, but he is the decided favorite any time he tees it up. Vijay Singh won here two years ago and captured the Houston Open two weeks ago. Jose Maria Olazabal is a two-time Masters champion and he is playing well.
After Sam Snead hits a ceremonial tee shot at 8:20 a.m. EDT Thursday, 89 players will begin play in the opening round.
For the first time, the Masters will have all of the top 50 players in the world rankings. Thirty-seven of the competitors are from somewhere other than the United States, equaling a tournament record. And 38 of those in the field have won at least one major title.
They will all be playing in a Masters that has, for various reasons, a very different feel than those that have gone before.
Johnson agrees that things are a little different this year. But he believes some things about the Masters must never change.
"We believe in the spirit of (Masters founder) Bobby Jones," he said. "We believe in decency, straightforwardness, courtesy. Those things are important to us."