AUGUSTA, Ga. – Three hundred and sixty five days ago, Augusta National chairman Billy Payne launched a volley that, depending on your point of view, was either long overdue or way overboard.
“With fame and fortune comes responsibility, not invisibility . . . Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children,” the chairman’s metaphorical finger waged at Tiger Woods, who was emerging from a self-induced exile and a scandal that had ballooned out of control for months.
On Wednesday there was no such indignation from the chairman. “We are eager to once again witness the masterful play of our invitees, hopefully once again accompanied by the enthusiastic roars of our patrons reverberating through these Georgia pines,” Payne said during his Wednesday “State of the Masters” address.
If the chairman’s tone is a barometer of what to expect from the season’s first major, patrons far and wide may want to preset their TiVos.
History doesn’t follow a script. For every Woods and Ben Hogan there’s a Y.E. Yang and Jack Fleck waiting to buzz kill, but if attention to detail counts for anything, and no one does minutia like Augusta National, the subtext of Payne’s media meet-and-greet was that of great expectations.
For the first time since Woods clipped the field by a dozen to collect the first of four green jackets in 1997, he is not the favorite. That honor belongs to Phil Mickelson, not that either player seemed to care much what the bookmakers believe.
“Doesn’t matter,” Woods said. “You still have to play the golf tournament, right?”
That April 1997 was also the last time Lefty was ranked ahead of Woods is either serendipity or simple math. You decide. That Mickelson, who won his third Masters last year in an emotional walk-off, seems closer to Jack Nicklaus’ record of six greens jackets than Woods is not as convoluted.
In the great Masters match between Woods and Mickelson, the big left-hander may be 1 down but there’s no ignoring the notion that he’s birdied three of the last seven holes to at least make a match of it.
On Tuesday, Mickelson was asked how he would “Phil proof” Augusta National. No chance. “I’m certainly not going to voice that,” he laughed. Truth is anything short of making him play from the other side of the ball is going to be pointless. There’s a reason why the members of Mickelson’s inner circle refer to Augusta National as “Phil’s playground.” Few, if any, major championship courses fuel Mickelson’s swashbuckling style like Augusta.
Ditto for Woods. Although he’s extended his winless run at the Masters to five years – by comparison the longest drought for Nicklaus prior to 1975 was also five years – it’s not as though he’s an AARP card away from a spot in Thursday’s ceremonial two-ball with Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
Woods has not finished worse than sixth since his last Masters victory (2005) and, by most accounts, is two decent putting rounds away from wins in 2007 and 2008. More importantly, however, he’s confident. Whether it’s misplaced poise remains to be seen, but the coy answer Woods gave when asked if he felt ready to win sounded circa 2006.
“Mm-hmmm,” he nodded.
For a player who excels at word economy, the exchange spoke volumes.
Some said a Woods victory in his first tournament back last year would have set karma back 100 years, but, at least on the eve of this year’s tournament, the statute of limitations appears to have run out on that dark cloud.
For the first time in more than a decade the list of potential winners runs well beyond the top of the marquee.
With six of the top 10 players in the Official World Golf Ranking, Europe’s 11-year victory schnied seems destined to end. World No. 2 Lee Westwood came within three early Sunday bogeys of that coveted first major last year, while few have played better than Graeme McDowell and No. 1 Martin Kaymer, although the German has yet to see a weekend in three trips down Magnolia Lane.
The game’s youth also has crashed a party long believed to be the undisputed realm of the veteran. So much so, the powers trotted out Gen Y’ers Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Jason Day together on Thursday, reminding the golf world that the PGA Tour did not invent “featured pairings.”
Under the towering oak behind Augusta National’s clubhouse one could read between the buzz words. Players and caddies talked of “lush” fairways – translation: bring on the bombers; and favorable forecasts – birdie makers required, others need not apply. Sound familiar?
Under the cloud of Woods’ comeback and Mickelson’s health concerns at home the green jackets, with an assist from Mother Nature, turned up the volume last year, drowning out the background clutter with a cacophony that rattled the pine trees for at least one Sunday afternoon.
If anyone is up for an encore it is Augusta National.
One observer late Monday afternoon was flummoxed by the viewing stand behind the new tournament practice tee that looked as if it had been there for decades, not months.
“It’s how they do things,” one longtime swing coach figured. “They add a little hump or bump to a green, it’s so subtle that you think you’re losing your mind.”
At Augusta National, even change seems strangely familiar. It may be a different year, and a vastly different backdrop, but it’s hard to imagine a different ending.
Follow Rex Hoggard on Twitter @RexHoggard