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Last chance for major prep in Atlanta: BellSouth's final year as

Masters tune-up tourney begins today

DULUTH - The BellSouth Classic was moved to the week before the Masters in 1999 with a major theme in mind.

Duluth's TPC at Sugarloaf course would be set up in a way that it prepared PGA Tour golfers, at least those fortunate enough to be in the field, for the following week's major right down I-20.

The lure of similar conditions to Augusta National was expected to be a major draw, particularly for top foreign players who also used the week to get ready for the Georgia climate.

But most times the weather stole all the headlines, hindered the golf and created headaches all around, which is why the BellSouth will be played in May next year. It should have warmer weather, but it won't serve its previous role as Masters tune-up anymore.

That's disappointing to guys like Phil Mickelson, the defending BellSouth and 2004 Masters champion.

He played the Duluth tourney every year to prepare for Augusta, and is back in the field for today's first round.

He likes to play the week before majors. But he doesn't plan to play in 2007 at the Shell Houston Open - which moves to the BellSouth's old slot - because it doesn't give him the practice of Sugarloaf.

It also helped that Mickelson could follow the routine of playing Augusta on Monday and Tuesday, then coming to Duluth for the BellSouth pro-am on Wednesday each year.

"I'll miss (the old BellSouth date) a lot," Mickelson said. "The tournament I think they have the week before the Masters is in Houston, and it's nothing like what's here in Atlanta and what the BellSouth does for this tournament to make it as close to Augusta conditions as possible.

"And I just think it's a great preparation week as well as the proximity, being so (geographically) close (to Augusta). I just love it. I'm really sorry that it's not going to be the week before the Masters anymore."

The players will get to use Sugarloaf for Masters preparation one final time this week, and they will do so on a course that is in its best shape ever.

Changes to the rough will bring it into play for the first time and golfers still will face the Augusta-like challenges on the greens and on chip shots.

"It's always a great tune-up for Augusta," 2005 Masters runner-up Chris DiMarco said. "Green speeds are very similar, and obviously the weather (is similar). It's a great tune-up and I always like playing in Atlanta."

This year's BellSouth also features an interesting situation in regards to the rough. Overseeded rye grass, made possible by switching the rough from Zoysia to Bermuda grass, makes the course greener and possibly tougher.

How having substantial rough for the first time affects the scores remains to be seen, but the first verdict will come today.

"I like the look with the overseeded rough," Rory Sabbatini said. "I think in some respects it will make it a little more difficult."