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Mickelson sticks with two clubs

    AUGUSTA — Defending Masters champion Phil Mickelson is sticking to his guns. Make that, two guns.
    Mickelson, winner of two of the last three Masters, will continue the two-driver approach he instituted during the 2006 tournament, which won by two strokes. He’ll use his regular-shaped driver when he’s trying to hit low shots or work it around the trees on the 10th and 13th holes and opt for his square-shaped driver — which is more like a 2-wood — to hit longer and higher shots.
    “It’s nice to be able to make the same swing and hit certain shots I want on certain holes and make the same swing with another club and have a different shot,” he said.
    Mickelson got an early start on his Masters preparations, arriving at Augusta National last week to begin toiling away on the course.
    “It was a good chance for me to just practice and work with Dave Pelz and Rick Smith on a couple of things that I wanted to get my game sharp,” he said.
    Mickelson didn’t participate in last week’s PGA Tour event and says not having competed recently is his biggest concern heading into Masters. He couldn’t resist sharing his affection for Augusta National and the Masters, his favorite event of the year.
    “There are very few courses where I just get excited just to go play, and every time I stand on the first tee at Augusta National, I’m excited just to play a round of golf,” said Mickelson, who won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February. “I love coming back here. It’s a fun place to play golf. I love playing the Masters. It’s where the year kicks off, and I’m going to work very hard this week to try to defend my title.”

Statesboro residents visit Augusta National
    Statesboro residents Everett Kennedy, broker/owner of Prudential Kennedy Realty, his wife Staci and Lee DeLoach, the Bulloch County probate judge, spent Wednesday enjoying the practice round at Augusta National.
    “It’s great to be out here with all the azaleas and other scenery,” DeLoach said. “I’m just happy to be here among all the excitement and to see the professionals display their skills. It’s good to take a break from the daily routine of work and be a part of all the excitement.”

Tiger’s ATM
    Four-time Masters champion Tiger Woods joked about winning money from Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz, who recently joined Woods for a round of golf along with Braves outfielder Jeff Francoeur and former first baseman Adam LaRoche.
    “Smoltzy is ridiculous on how much he loves the game of golf,” Woods said. “Plus, you know, I’m sure he’ll probably watch this press conference, which is great because he’s my ATM.”
    Woods also talked about Francoeur’s sheer power.
    “Jeff’s a joke – how hard he hits it,” Woods said.

Par 3 winner
    Mark O’Meara won Wednesday afternoon’s Par-3 contest. No Par-3 winner has ever gone on to win the Masters in the same year.

New tournament qualifications
    Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National and the Masters, announced Wednesday changes to the tournament’s qualifications, which will begin in 2008.
    According to the new guidelines, all winners of PGA Tour regular season and playoff events, those qualifying for the previous year’s season-ending Tour Championship and the 30 leaders on the final official PGA Tour money list for the previous calendar year will be invited to the Masters.
    “Our goal is to have the strongest field possible, and these qualifications accomplish that objective,” Payne said. “We missed the excitement of the winner of a PGA Tour event immediately qualifying for the Masters. Our qualifications also reflect golf’s current landscape, and we think they will serve the Masters well.”
    PGA Tour winners had been invited to the Masters from 1972 to 1999 before the exemption was discontinued and the tournament used the top 50 in the world rankings as a qualifying mark.
    “I can remember innumerable times where winners of tournament events would be more excited to hear that they had automatically qualified for the Masters than to receive the first prize money check,” Payne said. “So it was an exciting component of golf that really only the Masters could offer, and we all thought it appropriate that we bring it back.”

    Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.

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