Questions go beyond Tiger

AUGUSTA, Ga. – What passed for a juicy storyline last year was whether Masters officials had sapped all the joy from Augusta National with the addition of trees, a second cut of rough and 400-plus yards.

Turns out, they hadn’t. Chad Campbell played his first 16 holes in 9 under par.

This year’s top storyline does not involve alleged Tiger Woods mistresses named Jaime and Jaimee or Rachel and Raychel. Not directly, anyway.

But the major question heading into today’s opening round is simple: How will Woods play? Will a layoff that spanned the length of the college basketball season leave him as rusty as a 20-year-old wheelbarrow?

Here are other key questions:

•Is the Tiger mystique a thing of the past?

Jack Nicklaus dismissed that possibility, saying, “(Players) see Tiger on the leaderboard, and they start worrying about Tiger.”

But others say Woods’ marital issues prove he’s human. Plus he didn’t win a major last year, got cut from the British Open and blew a final-round lead in the PGA Championship to Y.E. Yang.

“Guys don’t see his name (on the leaderboard) now and say, ‘It’s over,’ ” Hunter Mahan said. “In 2000, when they saw his name, it was over.”

•Will a hangover afflict several favorites?

The Houston Open prides itself on Augusta-like conditions that make for a perfect warm-up event. But several big names hope their play in Houston is not a predictor of things to come.

Ernie Els tied for 44th. Phil Mickelson shot a second-round 76. Padraig Harrington closed with a 77. Ugh.

Steve Stricker, in his final Masters preamble, slogged through a 79-74 weekend at Bay Hill.

•Can Fred Couples pull a Watson?

Tom Watson came within one stroke of winning the British Open at 59. Perhaps that’s why people are giving Couples, 50, a legitimate chance this week.

That, and he still hits it a mile. Many of his drives rolled within a few feet of Woods’ during their practice round Monday.

•Could weather be a factor?

Indeed. It’s expected to rain tonight. That could make the course play longer than usual and spell trouble for relatively short knockers such as Stricker, Luke Donald and Mike Weir.

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