ORLANDO, Fla.– Dean Wilson was in his hotel room getting ready to practice one Tuesday afternoon seven years ago when a PGA Tour official called to let him know the pairings were about to be released.
Wilson didn’t understand why he was being contacted until he heard the names.
One was a fellow rookie, Aaron Barber. The other was a sponsor’s exemption, Annika Sorenstam.
“Someone from the Tour contacted me and said, ‘The draw is coming out and you’re paired with Annika. We want you to talk to the media when the tee times come out, rather than it coming out when you’re on the course,”’ Wilson said last week. “I knew it was going to be a big deal. I didn’t know it was going to be a giant deal.”
Imagine how massive the Masters will be.
The two situations are nothing alike. Colonial was a celebration of Sorenstam becoming the first woman in 58 years to compete on the PGA Tour. The Masters could be a circus when Woods returns to golf for the first time since being exposed as a serial wife cheater.
Even so, not since Colonial in 2003 has there been so much interest in tee times.
Wilson’s name essentially came out of a hat, thrown in with other rookies and players with the lowest level of status. Augusta National has no policy with its pairings, other than the defending champion traditionally plays with the U.S. Amateur champion.
How will they decide who plays with Woods?
“With great care,” said Colin Montgomerie, who is not eligible for the Masters this year. “You’d almost have to ask for volunteers. There’s a number of players that will be looking at the draw sheet – I believe it comes out on Tuesday afternoon – and will be delighted if they are not playing with Tiger on this occasion.”
So who gets him? Perhaps the better question is who wants him?
“I would say it would be a tough pairing, to tell you the truth,” said 49-year-old Kenny Perry, who lost in a playoff last year. “I’m old enough to maybe handle that. Maybe you need some hillbilly like me to do that. But it will be different, because I’m sure the players will be focused on Augusta, yet focused on what’s going on with him and paying attention to what he’s doing out there.”
Since his first Masters as a pro in 1997, Woods has played with only two American pros – Stewart Cink in 2000 and 2009, and Tim Herron in 1999. In eight of his 13 trips to Augusta, Woods has played with an amateur the first two rounds.
“I’d be OK with it,” Cink said. “I’ve known him for a long time. You have to remember this: At the Masters, playing with Tiger Woods is always a little different than it is anywhere else because there’s always more of the people that want to see him play there than anywhere else.
“This year, I don’t expect it to be a whole lot different than other years just because it’s always a little different. There would be more scrutiny, but I’d be fine with it.”
It’s unclear whether the men in green jackets have asked for a show of hands.
The prevailing thought is they will put Woods with two players not expected to contend, such as a former Masters champion. Where’s Doug Ford when you really need him?
Mark O’Meara comes to mind. Few players have been closer to Woods since he first turned pro, although the relationship is not as strong as it once was. Tom Watson is another possibility. If nothing else, he can supervise Woods for any salty language.
Another thought is for the Masters to put an Asian player with Woods as a payoff for its Far East television deals. Then again, that opportunity was around before Woods got into trouble. The only two Asian players to be in his group the first two rounds were Jeev Milkha Singh of India last year and Toshi Izawa of Japan in 2002.
Phil Mickelson volunteered, perhaps because he thrived playing with Woods in the final round a year ago. And when Mickelson won the HSBC Champions in Shanghai last year, it was the first time he had won a tournament while playing in the last group with Woods.
To be sure, some players might want to be in that group just out of curiosity.
They also want to win.
“There’s a part of me that would be like, ‘That would be a good show to be a part of to just watch.’ The best seat in the house,” Geoff Ogilvy said. “Then there’s a part of me that if you truly, truly, truly want to win the golf tournament, surely you want to stay as far away from it as you can.”
Despite all the interest in the pairing, it might prove to be of little consequence to the players along for the ride.
Augusta National is different. The fairways are wider than other majors, meaning the gallery is farther away. No one is allowed inside the ropes except for caddies and a television camera.
Paul Casey likes playing with Woods. Most players do. And while players may grumble about the movement of the media and the gallery, any athlete prefers playing before a full house.
“The sort of scrutiny will be on a level we’ve never witnessed before,” Casey said.
Then he spoke for whoever gets thrown into the group with Woods by adding, “But they won’t be watching me.”