By Mark Lamport-Stokes
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Jose Maria Olazabal's victory at the 1999 Masters is often referenced as the last time Augusta National played fast and firm throughout the tournament but the Spaniard believes this year's edition could match it.
Despite the heavy rain and lightning on Monday that forced practice to be suspended after just two hours, the heavily contoured layout has since quickened in pace after four successive days of bright sunshine and swirling winds.
Only 19 players in the field of 97 broke par in Thursday's opening round and, with conditions becoming even tougher on Friday, Olazabal predicted that very few were likely to dip under 72 in Sunday's final round.
"Today the greens were getting firmer and with this wind, if it stays like this, we are going to see some really fast, fast putts," the 48-year-old Spaniard told Reuters after carding a second successive two-over-par 74.
"If it stays dry and they don't water the greens, the course is going to be very close to how it was in 1999.
"When we teed off in the morning, for the first seven or eight holes it was all right and there was no wind. But it really started to blow when we got to nine."
Sunny, breezy conditions have been forecast for the next two days and Olazabal had no doubts about how difficult it would be for the contenders as the year's opening major approached its finale.
"If conditions stay like this, I don't see many guys breaking par," smiled the Spaniard, a double Masters champion who has piled up 23 European Tour wins in a glittering career.
"And that also makes it much more difficult for the Masters first-timers, without a doubt."
Olazabal, who clinched his first green jacket in 1994 before adding a second in 1999 after emerging from a five-way tie and outdueling Australian Greg Norman down the stretch, felt Augusta National was at its most demanding in strong winds.
"Over the years we have had some really windy conditions here that make this golf course really very difficult," he said. "If this golf course, as it is now, was played in that type of wind, it would be brutal."
Scotland's Sandy Lyle, who claimed his second major title at the 1988 Masters, was surprised by how difficult conditions became at Augusta National on Friday, especially for the early starters.
"It was very, very dry and bouncy out there, and even this morning. I was amazed at that first green, how fast it was," said the 56-year-old who returned a 72 after setting off in the third group of the day.
"I would say this is very close to the conditions we had for the 1999 Masters when Ollie won."
Asked to predict a likely winning score if the course became even firmer and faster over the weekend, Lyle told Reuters: "Something like six under might be the winning score. I think my score was six under when I won."
In fact, Lyle clinched the 1988 Masters with a seven-under total of 281 after famously hitting a seven-iron from a fairway bunker to 10 feet at the par-four last and sinking the birdie putt.
"The Masters, it's all about survival really," he said. "You can do the best preparation you can but you've still got to have a little bit of luck, you still need the right bounce at the right time.
"A lot of knowledge helps, and patience helps an awful lot."
(Editing by Tony Jimenez)