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Tiger the Masters Favorite But Not the Lock

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Any first-grade kid in the country can tell you whos the favorite. Tiger. Hes coming off two wins in tough tournaments. Hes probably the worlds best putter, the most skillful iron player, and right at the top when it comes to driving. Concentration, certainly. Should we say, luck? Of course, the better he plays, the luckier he gets. But he has it all.
 
If there wasnt the little matter of having to play the back nine on Sunday, we might as well name Woods the Masters champ and take the week off. But theres the business of having to play all 72 before they award the jacket. And surprises have happened since he won by an incredible 12 strokes in 1997, his rookie year.
 
Last year, it was a matter of two bad holes the first day. A double bogey on 10 and a triple on 12 sent him spiraling to a first-round 75, and he never could recover. It was the only major to elude him. Putting killed him in 1999 ' I just didnt give myself a lot of opportunities, he said. He shot 40 on the front nine Sunday. In 1998 he was busy revamping the swing that had won by such an awesome number in 1997.
 
If not Tiger, who surely is the favorite here, then who?
 
Well, somebody else has been able to do it the last three years. Last year it was Vijay Singh, and he has that face on again. He may finally have mastered the final piece of the Masters puzzle.
 
Singh appears to have finally made his peace with the greens of Augusta. No, no one ever gets comfortable with them. But he won last year by making all the putts he had to make on Sunday. He didnt do anything stupid on the greens, which is exactly what he needed to do, said his caddy at the time, Dave Renwick.
 
Singh is obviously playing well. He has two wins in the Far East this year. He finished second at L.A. in the Nissan, tied for third in the Genuity at Doral, tied for fourth at Bay Hill and was second at the Players in his last four starts. One faulty swing was all it took to doom him at Ponte Vedra Beach. He splashed down in the lake at 14 Sunday, and it was a mistake from which Tiger never let him recover.
 
Putting used to be his shaky statistic, but he has rolled it beautifully this year, standing third in that category. And no one, not even Woods, has birdied the par-5s with such regularity as Singh has this year. He stands No. 1 on the PGA Tour, and the par-5s are critical at Augusta. Both back-nine par-5s are completely fronted by water, so the price is severe if you go for it in two and come up short. That can be huge come Sunday afternoon.
 
Phil Mickelson has this thing going for him: he is absolutely fearless. Of course, he has a lot of golf shots in his bag, too. He won a playoff at the Buick Invitational, finished second to Woods at Bay Hill and tied for third at AT&T.
 
But Mickelson has had his down moments, too. He finished in a tie for 28th in a small field at the Mercedes and missed the cut at Phoenix and Nissan. He tied for 33rd at the Players Championship. But he has no bad statistics. Somewhat of a streaky player, if the streak happens to be on, watch out!
 
Mickelson has finished in the top 12 at Augusta the last five years, except for a missed cut in 1997. Hes finished in a tie for sixth and a tie for seventh the last two years. He never has played in the final group with Tiger when they both had a chance to win, but in head-to-head battles, Mickelson has won a couple of times. It should really be enlightening should they be the ones competing for the jacket Sunday.
 
Davis Love III is an interesting study. Hes had some impressive Masters in the not-to-distant past ' second in 1999, ties for seventh place in 96 and 97, a second in 95. He finished in the top-10 in five of seven tournaments this year, including a win at the AT&T and a playoff loss at the Buick Invitational. And he is the low scorer on Tour this year.
 
Negatives? He missed the cut at the first big tournament this year, the Players Championship. And he has been a mediocre putter.
 
Europeans? Jose Maria Olazabal, who has won twice at Augusta and whose balky driver doesnt hurt him nearly as much here as most PGA Tour courses, stands the best chance. Colin Montgomerie, who seems perplexed by these greens, did win the money title in Europe seven years in a row but has never played this course particularly well. Longshots Darren Clarke and Thomas Bjorn rate a look-see.
 
One other player merits a mention. David Duval has finished tied for second, tied for sixth and tied for third the last three years. Injuries have beaten him up last year and this year, however. He says the Masters is his sole focus, but he hasnt been able to play enough to be in top shape.
 
Still, the mind wonders
 
Full Coverage of the 2001 Masters Tournament