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One ball rule ignored by most

The signs will be hard to miss today on the first and 10th tees at the Augusta National Golf Club as practice rounds for the 60th Masters Tournament begin.

Not that most of the participants will pay them any mind.

Placed near the tee markers on those two holes and in plain sight, the signs read ``Practice rounds, use one ball only.''

Last year, Jose Maria Olazabal hit three extra balls into the green on the 15th hole, trying to carry the pond guarding the green on a windy day. Playing partner Seve Ballesteros also hit a number of balls on that hole.

The two Spaniards' actions are the rule, not the exception on practice round days.

What signs?

``Those signs mean `please disregard,' '' Scott Hoch said. ``I mean, it's our tournament. We're making them a fortune.''

``Nobody follows that rule,'' said 1987 Masters champion Larry Mize. ``We're not slamming a ton of balls into the greens and we always repair the ball marks.''

The signs have been placed on the tees of Nos. 1 and 10 for practice rounds for the last 48 years.

``If they didn't have that sign, there's no telling what people would do,'' Hoch said.

The main purpose of the signs is to cut down on the number of approach shots into the greens and subsequent ball marks that can damage the putting surface.

``I don't think they mind it unless you totally abuse it and start hitting a small bucket,'' Mize said.

Told that this article would run on the first day of the practice rounds this year, Mize said, ``I guess we'll find out if they (the Augusta National) mind.''

``Whether you hit one or two balls, it's not going to make that much difference,'' Tom Lehman said.

``The course is in such good shape, what are a few more ball marks?'' Hoch asked. ``You have a short field anyway. How can you only hit one ball to those greens and get an idea how the course plays? Like No. 14, you've got to hit a number of balls to different areas of the green, to see where the ball finishes up.''

Just as the Augusta National has the power not to extend an invitation to a player who meets a qualification to the play in the Masters (though it's never happened), players should be aware that the club has punished a golfer in the past for flaunting the ``use one ball only'' practice round rule.

The signs were put up in 1948 at the insistence of then-Chairman Clifford Roberts.

That year Frank Stranahan, an amateur, thought the signs applied to golfers in threesomes and foursomes who might be slowing down play. Playing a practice round by himself one day and not holding up any of the groups behind him, Stranahan played a second ball to several greens.

While he was still playing the back nine, Stranahan was requested by club officials to leave the course. He was told his invitation had been withdrawn. Though Stranahan protested, Roberts' decision was final and Stranahan was out of the Masters.

According to the letter of the rule, golfers shouldn't hit practice shots at any time during a practice round.

``They say don't hit more than one ball out of a bunker,'' Mize said. ``That's very hard to do. You're out there trying to get ready for the tournament and you want to get the feel of the golf course.''

``By that rule, they don't even want you to chip to the greens,'' Hoch said. ``That's one thing you have to practice a bunch there.''

Olazabal and Ballesteros, like so many other participants, knew they were breaking Augusta National's rules last year during the practice rounds but felt secure that nothing would happen to them.

``It wouldn't be fair to the players to enforce that rule, especially the guys who haven't played the course very often,'' Hoch said.

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