AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods couldn’t see the green through the trees, though that was only a minor obstacle. He choked up on a 5-wood and played a sweeping draw around the pines, over the water and onto the back of the green.
As he approached the Sarazen Bridge to the 15th green Wednesday, the grandstand rumbled when fans suddenly rose in unison to see him walk by. Some of them held cameras as high as they could, clicked and hoped for the best.
Woods is worth watching at the Masters for all the right reasons.
All it took was one win at Bay Hill two weeks ago for Woods to even remotely resemble the guy who once dominated golf. He won by five shots, and, just like that, was elevated to the favorite at Augusta National.
“Everything is headed in the right direction at the right time,” Woods said.
But he’s not the only star of this Masters.
Rory McIlroy has all the traits of the heir apparent – an easy swing that produces enormous power, a U.S. Open title at age 22, a tennis star for a girlfriend, and an engaging personality – something that Woods is not. In his last 12 tournaments, McIlroy finished third or better eight times, including two wins and a brief stay at No. 1 in the world.
“I’m in a great place,” McIlroy said. “I feel like my golf game is in great shape.”
There is so much anticipation about this clash of generations it’s as if they were the only two players competing for a green jacket, much like the days of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
Far from it.
“There probably hasn’t been a Masters with more legitimate chances,” Geoff Ogilvy said before heading out for a final practice round. “I can understand people seeing this as a two-man race, but it’s never been further from the truth. There are more horses in this race than ever before.”
Luke Donald returned to No. 1 in the world three weeks ago by winning at Innisbrook. He is one of eight players among the top 20 in the world who have won this year, a list that includes Woods and McIlroy, along with Hunter Mahan (twice), Steve Stricker, Justin Rose and Phil Mickelson, a threat at Augusta even when he’s not playing well.
“And you’ve got a guy like Keegan Bradley,” Ogilvy said, referring to the PGA champion who won the first major he ever played. “Nobody ever talked about a Masters rookie with a chance. There’s more people in the conversation, isn’t there?”
One conversation that was kept short Wednesday was Masters chairman Billy Payne refusing to discuss the all-male membership at Augusta National. The topic returned this year because IBM appointed Virginia Rometty its CEO, and the last four chief executives of Big Blue were invited to be members.
“All issues of membership are now and have been historically subject to the private deliberations of the members, and that statement remains accurate, and remains my statement,” Payne said.
Despite a few more attempts – including a tense moment when Payne cut off a series of questions by saying, “Thank you” – the focus at Augusta quickly shifted back to golf.
Still fresh are memories from last year, when eight players had at least a share of the lead in the final round – McIlroy early, Woods in the middle, Adam Scott late – until Charl Schwartzel finished with four straight birdies for a two-shot win.
It could be anyone this year – not just Woods and McIlroy.
“Rory has never won here,” Lee Westwood said. “Tiger has not won here since 2005. So I think everybody in this room would have to be naive to think it was a two-horse race, wouldn’t they? There’s more. I think Phil might have a little bit of something to say about that. Luke might. I might.”
Adding to the wide-open feel is the weather.
An unseasonably warm spring, which caused the azaleas and dogwoods to already lose their blooms, gave way to storms that dumped 1 1/2 inches of rain on the course before dawn Wednesday and toppled a few trees, including one that crashed onto a restroom.
Another storm arrived in the afternoon and cut short the Par 3 Contest, along with making Augusta National even softer. Mickelson said to brace for birdies in such soft conditions. His fear was that players could fire at pins, instead of thinking their way around a course that can require so much strategy.
The forecast was for occasional storms the opening two rounds, followed by sunshine on the weekend. That’s all it takes to change the dynamics of this major. The greens are more receptive, yet a soft course also becomes a longer course.
Soft conditions might favor McIlroy. Remember, Congressional also received plenty of rain at the U.S. Open last summer when Boy Wonder set the championship record at 16-under 268.
“He plays without fear, which is a great way to play,” Mickelson said. “When you get soft conditions like at the U.S. Open, he’s going to light it up. And I think that he’s going to continue his great play. If he ends up learning this golf course, I think he’s going to win here a number of times.”
Then again, that’s what Nicklaus and Palmer said about Woods when they first saw him at Augusta as an amateur and predicted he would win as many green jackets as they had combined – 10. Instead, he is stuck on four Masters.
McIlroy will be playing with Angel Cabrera the first two rounds, a replay from last year. They were in the final group, when McIlroy shot 80 on the final day to go from a four-shot lead to a 10-shot deficit.
Asked if he felt sorry for McIlroy going through such a meltdown, Cabrera said:
“No, because when I play bad, nobody feels sorry for me. It was a shame, but I didn’t feel bad for him. I knew it was going to be hard for him. When we got done, I told him, `This is a tournament you can win many times.’ “