Gurus agree Tiger is back, man to beat
by Al Muskewitz
amuskewitz@annistonstar.com
Apr 01, 2012 | 3479 views |  0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Even if you’re not the most serious golf fan, you might consider freeing up a few hours later in the week. And you definitely want to make your tee time as early as possible on the weekend.

With the world’s top players playing their best right now, this may be the most entertaining Masters in years.

Last year’s tournament was riveting television, but the guys who’ll be behind the ESPN mics analyzing the action from the year’s first major this week — Andy North, Curtis Strange and Paul Azinger, all of whom know their way around the majors and Augusta National — expect a show for the ages.

And among the top, well, guess who?

“Really, I think the whole Tiger Woods winning at Bay Hill was huge. He’s going to be the most confident player in the field,” Azinger said during a conference call with national golf media late last week. “He’ll probably come off as a favorite ahead of Rory McIlroy and whoever is ranked ahead of him.

“… With all the top players being red hot, I think we look forward to a great event.”

Just look at the contenders:

• Rory McIlroy: The 22-year-old returns to the scene of his 10th hole disaster that opened the door to a wild back nine ride for everyone on Championship Sunday. But he

displayed poise well beyond his years that delivered him a U.S. Open and a one-time No. 1 world ranking. Still, he hasn’t played in three weeks.

• Phil Mickelson: He interestingly didn’t rate a lot of conversation on the conference call, but won earlier this year and is always in the conversation at Augusta as a favorite.

• Luke Donald: Now the world’s No. 1 despite not winning a major, he had three Masters rounds in the 60s last year and finished tied for fourth with Woods. The analysts all like his game and consistency, but they question whether he has the length to challenge the course. With that in mind, Azinger said, Donald only “has to be the best wedge player in the world next week” to win the tournament.

• Lee Westwood: Could help Donald carry the cross of best player never to win a major.

And that’s not to leave out others like Dustin Johnson, Adam Scott, Jason Day, Keegan Bradley and the plethora of rising young stars on the Tour. In fact, eight players in the world’s top 20 have won this year.

All of them have helped change the landscape of the game since Woods’ downward spiral following the Thanksgiving 2009 accident that cost the longtime former world No. 1 everything.

They’ll all be in the conversation, at least going into the week, and perhaps turn this Sunday into an even wilder shootout than it was a year ago when eight players had a share of the lead until Charl Schwartzel closed them all out with an historic run of four birdies in his final four holes.

If all the storylines converge this week, the analysts project this Masters to fall in line with the edge-of-your seat excitement that were the 1975 classic with Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf and Jack Nicklaus, and the 1986 Nicklaus win.

“I think it’s potentially one of the most enjoyable Masters to cover going back maybe seven or eight years when we had … Phil and Tiger and Ernie (Els) and (Retief) Goosen and Vijay (Singh) were all at the top of their games coming into the Masters playing exceptionally well,” North said. “I think it’s going to be that same kind of feeling there, that you’ve got the guys that you want playing well playing well; that’s really special.”

Of course, all that drama and potential challengers could fall off the leaderboard if Woods indeed has returned to form with his Bay Hill win, as the analysts suggest.

While Woods has continually said he’s been getting close to his old form, the player people saw at Bay Hill was closer than ever. His irons were crisp and his putting — which plagued him at Augusta the last two years even if he did finish in the top five — was spot-on.

And don’t forget he’s won at Augusta four times. Even though he hasn’t won since 2005, his worst finish there since has been sixth. Heck, he was second each of the last two years with virtually no game.

“If his mind is like it was at Bay Hill and he’s physically even close to where he was, he might run off and hide from this field,” Azinger said. “If he brings that mental mindset that he had at Bay Hill the rest of the year, I think he returns to the Tiger of old. I mean, the sky’s the limit for him.

“If the guy is clicking on all cylinders, he will not lose the tournament. It’s as simple as that. If he has that convergence of the mental part and the physical part like he did at Bay Hill, if (Graeme) McDowell doesn’t make three putts over 40 feet, Tiger wins by eight. … Is anybody as good as he is when he’s good? I think the answer is no.”

But after such a dramatic fall from grace, there were doubts whether Woods would ever win again.

It took 30 months — more than 900 days — before it happened again. Oh, he won his own silly season event that was more like an outing with 15 of his buddies, but he finally tasted victory in a real event two weeks ago in Orlando against a full field.

To understand where Woods’ game is now, one has to recall where he’s been — as if they could ever forget, it was truly in all the papers.

He seemed bulletproof until that Thanksgiving Night in 2009 opened the door to a very public airing of a very private life. He lost everything — his marriage (his wife got the kids and the house), his caddy, his coaches, his endorsements, his swing and the personal respect of his peers.

That’s what made last Sunday in Orlando so big and has many, like Strange, elevating him to the role of outright favorite this week.

“This is the first Masters post-scandal,” Strange said. “This is the first Masters that’s going to be nothing but golf, and I like that.

“I don’t think we can overstate the importance of him winning at Bay Hill, for two reasons: One, it might be a little bit of an overstatement, but this is the start of his second career because of getting over the shame, getting over the past, starting anew, and also starting anew with new mechanics and a new golf swing.  It solidifies his belief in Sean Foley.”

There’s a common perception now that Woods has returned to the winner’s circle — especially the way he delivered at Bay Hill — things will return to way it was with players just cowering when his name starts climbing on the leaderboard, particularly when he shows up wearing his trademark Sunday duds that Azinger described as black pants and a shirt the color of blood.

It might happen in time, Strange said, but don’t expect it right away.

“I don’t think he’ll lap the field and win by 12 lengths like he did before, but I certainly expect him to be there with numerous others Sunday afternoon,” he said. “I don’t think the intimidation factor will happen because of Tiger Woods this week, but I damn sure believe, opposite of many other people, that if he wins another two or three times or one time and he’s back on the leaderboard later in the year in another major, intimidation is part of the game again, just like it was before.

“… I just think it’s going to be a process.  I certainly expect him to be there.  I would not bet against him this week at all … but the intimidation factor isn’t there yet.”

Al Muskewitz covers golf for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.