AUGUSTA, Ga. – The defending Masters champion normally needs to build in an extra 10 or 15 minutes anytime he walks by the crowd of reporters clustered outside the clubhouse.
There’s nothing normal about this year, however.
With reporters on the lookout for Mark O’Meara – better known as Tiger Woods’ playing partner Tuesday – Angel Cabrera was able to stroll right on by not once, but twice.
“The Masters is the Masters,” Cabrera said. “They can talk about anybody, they can talk about Tiger. But the Masters is the Masters, and we have to give that importance to the Masters.”
Cabrera’s victory at Augusta National was his last, and Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo are the only champions to repeat at the Masters. But Cabrera can never be counted out – especially after the way he won last year.
“I have the possibility,” Cabrera said. “Maybe I haven’t had the great results lately, but I do feel the chance is out there, and I feel confident about it.”
Kenny Perry led Cabrera and Chad Campbell by two strokes with two holes to play last year, only to drop shots on both holes and force a playoff. Cabrera seemed to be finished when his tee shot on 18, the first playoff hole, landed behind a tree, and his next shot hit another tree.
But Cabrera somehow managed to thread a sand wedge to 8 feet and made the putt. When Perry’s ball found mud in the fairway on the second hole, Cabrera had only to make a routine par for the green jacket. He was the first Argentine to win the Masters.
“Winning the Masters is the most difficult thing in golf,” said Cabrera, who also won the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont. “So anything that comes now is more accessible.”
As a reminder, Cabrera stopped by that tree on 18 to show his son Angel, who is caddying for him here this week, just how bad his shot was.
“Honestly, I’m the one who wanted to go see that shot, but he was a perfect excuse.”
JACK’S BACK: When Jack Nicklaus was still playing the Masters, he had little use for the idea of becoming a ceremonial starter.
After calling it a career five years ago, his stance gradually softened.
Now, Jack’s back – at least for one shot.
Nicklaus will be at Augusta National early Thursday morning to join Arnold Palmer for the ceremonial tee shots that signal the start of the year’s first major tournament.
“We’ll have fun,” the 70-year-old Golden Bear said, “and we’ll both belt it out there about 150 yards.”
Nicklaus decided to take part after getting a call from Augusta National chairman Billy Payne, who passed along Palmer’s wish that his longtime rival join him for the opening shot.
“When I was first asked about it, I was still playing. So I didn’t. I had no desire to do that,” Nicklaus said. “But I stopped playing. … And you know, I thought that it would be a nice thing to do. So I’m here. And I’m looking forward to it.”
While willing to come back to Augusta for ceremonial duties, Nicklaus had no desire to talk about Tiger Woods’ sex scandal. The retired golfer turned aside several questions about Woods with polite responses such as “I think I’ll stay away from that.”
When the half-hour news conference appeared to be wrapping up, Nicklaus noticed several reporters with their hands up and said he’d be willing to stay.
With one caveat: “Does anybody got anything other than Tiger?”
THAT’S ALL, FOLKS: Raymond Floyd’s days of tournament golf appear to be over.
Floyd announced Tuesday that he will no longer play the Masters, making last year’s appearance – his 44th – his final one.
“It was something I toyed with pretty much all year, as to whether I would play or not,” Floyd said. “I wanted to leave with really fond memories of the golf course and the way I played the golf course through all of these years, and I’m not competitive there now. I didn’t want to go out there and embarrass myself.”
Asked if he would continue to play on the Champions Tour, Floyd said he is “probably retired” from tournament golf.
Floyd had played in every Masters since 1965. He won in 1976 and was runner-up three times, including 1990, when he lost to Nick Faldo in a playoff after hitting his approach into the water on No. 11, the second playoff hole. But Floyd, 67, hadn’t made the cut in 10 years.
Floyd is the latest in a line of past champions who have decided to stop playing the Masters in recent years, including Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.
Floyd still plans to play the Par-3 tournament on Wednesday, joking that he can reach most of those greens off the tee.
“I don’t feel like it’s the end of an era,” he said. “I plan to come back and be part of the golf tournament.”
UNDER THE RADAR: Steve Stricker has a secret to staying out of the limelight: Live in Wisconsin.
The world’s No. 2 golfer lives year-round in his home state, where people either don’t recognize him or have gotten so used to him they don’t consider a sighting anything special. The guy ahead of him on the rankings list, Tiger Woods, should only be so lucky.
Woods, the world’s most famous athlete, has been tabloid fodder since news of his rampant infidelities broke in November, and neither he nor wife Elin can go anywhere without attracting photographers.
“I feel very fortunate to live the kind of life I do,” Stricker said Tuesday. “I can play golf out here for a living and go back to basically obscurity in Wisconsin. And I like it that way. I can go around town and really not too many people know who I am, take my family out and there’s no real cameras following me around.
“It’s nice that way,” Stricker said. “I imagine what Tiger has been going through has been very difficult, not only on him, but his family.”
YOUNG GUN: Matteo Manassero turned on the charm as if he’s been doing this for years.
The 16-year-old from Italy, the youngest to ever play in the Masters, was a delight during his news conference Tuesday, talking about everything from his admiration for Seve Ballesteros to homework to his curfew. He did it all in English, too, without an interpreter in sight.
“No, I can speak English,” Manassero said when asked if he wanted help with translations.
Manassero started golfing at 3, when his parents took him to the driving range in Verona, his hometown. He became the youngest winner in the 124-history of the British Amateur Championship last year, then finished tied for 13th at the British Open at Turnberry.
“It will definitely help me for all my pro life,” said Manassero, who turns 17 on April 19. “I started there to have a lot of crowd and more attention, so that is helping me. And will help me, of course, here.”
Manassero plans to make his professional debut at next month’s Italian Open and hopes to do well enough this year to earn his card. If not, he said he’ll go to qualifying school or play on the Challenge Tour, Europe’s second tier.
But no matter where he’s playing, he’ll be bringing his books.
Manassero currently attends traditional high school and will finish out the year. After that, though, he’ll probably get a tutor or take classes for his last two years.
“We haven’t planned it yet, but it will be something like that,” he said. “I want to finish school.”
AP National Writer Paul Newberry contributed to this report.