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Thursday, April 07, 2011

Tim Clark 's right elbow is hurting -- to the point that his status for tournament golf is day to day.

"Not good ... not good at all," Clark said Wednesday in the locker room at Augusta National Golf Club when asked about a severe case of tendinitis that has kept him from playing competitive golf since the year's first two PGA Tour events in Hawaii. "I'm doing what I can each day. The only thing I can promise is I will try to play (Thursday)."

Clark, who earned a three-year exemption to the Masters Tournament by winning The Players Championship last year, has a history of health problems. He missed almost all of the 2001 season with a wrist injury and nearly all of the first three months of the 2007 season with a bulging neck disc.

Clark played in the Par-3 Contest, shooting 2-under. He left immediately after finishing for physical therapy.

He played well in his only two starts of the season, tying for 17th in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions and tying for second in the Sony Open. Clark shot under-par in seven of those eight rounds, including a final-round 64 in the Sony. He also tied for ninth in the South African Open, shooting 70 or lower in all four rounds.

His tendinitis began flaring up shortly after those events.

Clark once held the dubious distinction of earning the most money on the PGA Tour without a victory.

That changed last May when he played bogey-free for the last 26 holes of The Players, including a final-round 67 at the TPC Sawgrass Players Stadium Course that enabled him to erase a three-shot deficit to Lee Westwood.

Clark has played in the Masters nine times, making five cuts; he has finished tied for 13th or higher in four of those five 72-hole stays at Augusta, including a solo second in 2006 when he holed out from the bunker at No. 18 for birdie to finish two shots behind Phil Mickelson.

Clark shared the 36-hole lead with Brett Wetterich in the 2007 Masters, but shot 80 in the third round and eventually tied for 13th.

LOWERING EXPECTATIONS: Ernie Els had planned to participate in the Par-3 Contest on Wednesday, but the afternoon sun and the course's conditions on the final practice round day changed his mind.

"I was going to play the Par-3," he said. "But it's such a beautiful day. I'm going to play the front nine now and try to get speed and everything going."

Els joined Matt Kuchar and Augusta native Larry Mize , who won his green jacket in 1987.

Els has yet to win a Masters Tournament in 17 tries, though he does have two runner-up finishes and a tie for eighth last year.

The 41-year-old South African knows he might be at a disadvantage to the younger generation of long hitters, lowering his odds of contending.

"I was playing quite well last year, but I'm playing OK this year. My expectations aren't as high this year," he said. "I'm just trying to enjoy the week. If the game comes around, I'd love to be in the hunt. I've tried for a long time. It kind of hurt me when I didn't do what I wanted to do."

Els will be grouped with Hunter Mahan and Francesco Molinari for the first two rounds. The golfers, who are scheduled to tee off today at 10:30 a.m., will follow world No. 1 Martin Kaymer and precede Tiger Woods ' grouping.

PARTNER TO THE STARS: Matt Kuchar was grouped with Woods in the first two rounds of last year's Masters, dealing with the accompanying media hoopla surrounding Woods' first start of the year after revelations of his extramarital scandal.

This year, Kuchar is playing with the world's No. 1- and 2-ranked players, Kaymer and Lee Westwood of England.

Kuchar doesn't wonder what's up with the club's scheduling. To him, it's another opportunity.

"What are you going to do? Not play with them?" Kuchar asked. "It's no big deal, either last year or this year. You get a chance to play in the Masters, and you don't really worry too much about who they put you with."

Kuchar, the next highest-ranked American in the world after Phil Mickelson , Woods and Steve Stricker, said he welcomes the chance to play with Kaymer and Westwood.

"I haven't been grouped with them a lot ... maybe one or two times each," said the Georgia Tech graduate. "Obviously, they're playing very well to be ranked where they are."

BOMBS AWAY: On a lengthened course thought to belong to only long hitters, Zach Johnson proved the theory wrong in 2007 with a conservative game plan on the par 5s that earned him a green jacket.

In between a Wednesday practice round and a Par-3 Contest with tennis star Andy Roddick as his caddie, Johnson said a short-game golfer can still win the Masters.

"I'm not saying it's a bomber's course, but it helps to carry a long ways, especially if the fairways are somewhat moist," he said. "So I think they have somewhat of an advantage, but this place can dry out fast and then it doesn't matter how far you hit it. That's what I love about Augusta National."

Johnson, who will start his seventh Masters this afternoon at 12:20 with Y.E. Yang and Miguel Angel Jimenez , hasn't finished inside the top 20 since his Masters win four years ago. He said the key to proper preparation this week includes finding that delicate balance between getting enough rest and playing the course enough times to know it well.

"The first thing that comes to my mind is just patience," he said. "You can grind, you can certainly put the prep in, and that's not going to hurt, but you've got to remain patient and you've got to stay rested, especially Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

"The second would be getting on the golf course as much as you can."

THE OTHER PALMER: Ryan Palmer gets asked over and over whether he is related to golf legend Arnold Palmer .

He's not.

Palmer is a native of Amarillo, Texas, and played his college golf at Texas A&M.

Fans around the practice putting green Wednesday saw an interesting sight, however, and a different Nicklaus-Palmer gathering from the one at the Par-3 Contest.

Ryan Palmer was practicing his putts when Jack Nicklaus strolled across the green wearing his green jacket. They shook hands and chatted for a few minutes.

"It was nice," said Palmer, playing in his third Masters Tournament. "He knew who I was and came over and said hi. He asked me if I was coming over to the Memorial in a month. We just chatted. It was really cool."

FITTING IN: It's been eight years since Mike Weir defeated Len Mattiace in a playoff to win his green jacket. At Tuesday night's Masters Champions dinner, the 40-year-old Canadian said he felt at home among the other winners.

"It was fantastic to be in a room with those guys last night," he said. "I feel part of that. Obviously, I am part of that. But now I really feel part of it. I'm almost kind of a veteran up there a little bit now that I've been there for a while. It's just a great feeling."

Jack Burke Jr. , one of the oldest champions, attended the dinner, and Weir said he sought out the 1956 Masters winner.

"I sat and had a drink with him," he said. "He has such great stories, so it's a real special experience ... You don't get that in any other sporting event where a group of guys get together like that, not that I know of anyways, so it's pretty special."

SHORT SIGHTED: For the bulk of his early playing days, the Gary Woodland Show was all about length.

Fans marveled at it. Opponents marveled at it. Experts marveled at it.

What didn't draw the same oohs and aahs, however, was Woodland's prowess once he got to the green. Fairly judged or not, the putter was always deemed as a shortcoming Woodland was going to have to master to make it as a professional on the PGA Tour.

Three months into his return to the tour this year, it's become apparent that Woodland has made major strides in that area. Whether he's "Mastered" it enough to win his first major this week at Augusta National -- which arguably challenges the putter more than any other course in the world -- remains to be seen when Woodland tees off at 1:59 p.m. today in his first Masters appearance.

"I've always been a good ball-striker, which has put a lot of pressure on my putting," Woodland said. "When I hit it as well as I do, I have a lot of opportunities and if you don't make them, the people view that as a letdown. But when you putt it well, it just takes the pressure off everything else. If the putting is there, I know I don't have to hit it close and that's a huge deal, particularly here."

Even though Woodland grew up overpowering courses in Topeka and around Kansas, he insists that his putter wasn't necessarily a weakness.

"Growing up, I always felt I putted it well," Woodland said. "The problem was, when I got to the next level and started traveling to a lot of different courses and places, I started to see a lot of different grasses and that's when it really started to affect me. We had bent grass at home and I've always putted well on bent grass. But when I started playing college, we were playing bermuda, playing poa anna, playing papsalum --- I started struggling because I hadn't seen it before."

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