AUGUSTA, Ga. – The first tee shot clattered through a pair of pines on the left side of the 13th fairway, finally landing on the wrong side of Rae’s Creek. Tiger Woods tried again, and this wasn’t any better. Fans peered across the fairway and only heard the ball rifle through some bushes.
“He’s hitting another one,” a man announced from the gallery.
The third shot with a fairway metal caused them to retreat until it turned with a slight draw, clipping a pine branch and settling in the second cut of rough.
Woods played nine holes Wednesday morning in his final tuneup for the Masters, and how he played was of little consequence. Even so, that snapshot from the 13th tee was another reminder how quickly the best plans can fall apart, even for the No. 1 player on top of his game, especially at Augusta National.
The hype over Woods is not that strong this year, though there is no doubt who is driving the conversation. Those who have played with him on the course or hit balls next to him on the range talked about how he never missed a shot. His putting has been pure since he got that tip from Steve Stricker last month at Doral. And it shows in the scores. Woods has won his last two tournaments, at Doral and Bay Hill, and neither was terribly close.
When the Masters begins today, he is the odds-on favorite to end his five-year drought in the majors, and win a green jacket for the first time since 2005.
Trouble is, Augusta National doesn’t play favorites.
“Obviously, Tiger is Tiger,” said Scott Piercy, who will play alongside Woods and Luke Donald in the opening two rounds. “He’s always going to be that target. He knows it, and that’s how he wants it. But there’s a lot of people getting closer. And the golfing gods, or whatever you want to call them, have a lot to do with winning. A bounce here, a bounce there. A lip in, a lip out.”
It has been 11 years since the No. 1 player in the world – Woods – won the Masters.
There is always the usual assortment of players who seem to contend every year for a green jacket. Phil Mickelson is a three-time Masters champion, his most recent in 2010 when he arrived at Augusta National without having come close to winning that year. Fred Couples was tied for the 36-hole lead last year at age 52. Rory McIlroy has shown he can play the course, at least on the weekdays. Lee Westwood has been among the top three twice since 2010.
Three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo didn’t name them all, but his list kept growing when he talked about 20 players who could win the Masters, all from what he referred to as the second tier and described as “pretty darn good.”
“Yes, Tiger is the favorite,” Faldo said. “He’s strong. He’s determined. We will see. But he’s going to be chased by a lot of really good players.”