Alone in a Crowd

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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Seven players stood on the first tee in the morning chill of Augusta National on Tuesday, a half-dozen more waiting on the practice green behind them. They had about 10 minutes to kill before the course opened for practice at 8 a.m.
 
The quiet was shattered by the crack of Tiger Woods hitting his 3-wood off the 10th tee.
 
He was playing alone, getting an early start before anyone in a green jacket could stop him. It was a scene that set the stage perfectly for this Masters: Tiger against the field.
 
Woods is a four-time Masters champion, the favorite just about every year and everywhere he plays. Part of that is a product of being the No. 1 player in the world for the better part of a decade. Part of it comes from having won eight of his last 10 tournaments.
 
And then there was that declaration this year that the calendar Grand Slam was easily within reason.
 
Id like to bet against him, like the whole field here this week, Ernie Els said Tuesday. But its definitely in his reach. Hes definitely capable. I dont think weve seen a player like him ever. Hes really one of a kind, and thats saying a lot.
 
There have been favorites at Augusta for every generation, but its hard to imagine anyone being listed as even-money by the bookies, preposterous odds for golf.
 
Thats taking it very far, Els said. But hes done incredible things.
 
Woods didnt do much on Tuesday, playing only the back nine before calling it a day. He will forgo the Par 3 Tournament on Wednesday as he has done the last couple of years, saying it has become too much of a distraction before teeing off in the Masters.
 
He has spoken openly about his odds of winning the Grand Slam, even before his first tournament of the year, and he was asked if anything has happened in the last three months to change his outlook.
 
No, Woods said, waiting for the snickers to fade before explaining.
 
You have to understand why I said that, Woods said. Because Ive done it before. Ive won all four in a row. The majority of my career'I think this is my 12th or 13th season out here'nine of those years, Ive won five or more tournaments. So (Ive) just got to win the right four. Thats what it boils down to.
 
Woods is the only professional to hold all four majors at the same time, sweeping them in a span of 294 days from the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach to the 2001 Masters.
 
And he showed up at Augusta last year going for his third straight major.
 
But the modern Grand Slam that Arnold Palmer created on his way to the 1960 British Open means doing it in a calendar year. Except for 1971, when the PGA Championship was held in February in south Florida, that means it starts with the Masters.
 
If he doesnt win this Masters, the slam is over.
 
This major is so important to all of us, he said. Its a special event. You always want to win this event. Ive been lucky enough to have won it four times. But in order to win all on the calendar, you have to win here, yeah. Hopefully, I can get it done this year and move on.
 
Woods got halfway to the slam in 2002, winning the Masters and U.S. Open and contending at the British Open until ferocious wind off the North Sea sent him to an 81 in the third round at Muirfield.
 
Palmer (1960) and Jack Nicklaus (1972) are the only other players to get that far.
 
That was all Nicklaus thought about at the start of each year, and it reached a point in the late 1960s that if he didnt win the Masters, it took him awhile to realize the rest of the year was not shot.
 
I dont remember what year it was that I kicked myself in the rear end, because I sort of wasted a couple of other majors, Nicklaus said. I didnt win the Masters, and I didnt prepare properly for the others. And I went in and said, Thats a bad attitude. Thats kind of an unrealistic way to approach what youre doing.
 
I realized if you didnt win, you do the best you can and win as much as you can.
 
The year must have been 1969, when Nicklaus tied for 24th in the Masters, and didnt seriously contend in the other majors. His only top 10 was at the British Open, and it was the only time in a 21-year span that Nicklaus had only one top 10 in a major.
 
But that doesnt make the Grand Slam unrealistic.
 
Weve been talking about it'or youve been talking about it'for four months, British Open champion Padraig Harrington said. Weve gotten used to it. It shows that its been a long time since a player has been capable of winning a Grand Slam. I think you have to go back to Nicklaus and Hogan and the greats back then to think of somebody who is going to win all four in one year.
 
No one will give Woods anything, least of all the golf course.
 
Zach Johnson sure didnt wilt last year when he held off Woods on the back nine for a two-shot victory.
 
Ignorance and bliss, Johnson said.
 
Phil Mickelson is not one to back down. Lefty went toe-to-toe with Woods in the final round outside Boston last year and beat him, the only tournament Woods didnt win in eight months.
 
Mickelson has won two of the last four times at Augusta, which is one more than Woods. The only part of his game lacking at the moment is his chipping and putting, typically his strength, so hes not overly concerned.
 
Mickelson almost had reason to consider his odds of a Grand Slam after winning the Masters in 2006 and taking a one-shot lead into the final hole of the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, only to make double bogey.
 
I dont think its an impossible feat, he said. I just think its going to be a tough one.
 
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