Threes Company


AUGUSTA, Ga. – Matt Kuchar got the news as he walked off the first tee in his practice round Tuesday at Augusta National.

K.J. Choi received word as he played the 14th hole.

They were informed that they were being paired with Tiger Woods in the first two rounds of the Masters.

The club official delivering the news was not dressed like the Grim Reaper.

He did not offer them blindfolds and cigarettes.

If this were any other tournament, the news might have come with an overwhelming sense of doom over their chances of contending.

If they were paired with Woods in his return to golf anywhere but the Masters, they would be dealing with the possibility of playing through the wildest circus golf’s ever seen. Booing, heckling and taunting might be mixed between the shot making anywhere except here.

But within the walls of Augusta National, decorum promises to rule among Masters patrons who have politely and respectfully welcomed Woods back to the game in his practice rounds this week.

“It’s going to be exciting,” Kuchar said while making the turn to the back nine of his practice round on Tuesday. “If there’s any place to be paired with him with big crowds, it’s here.”

The strict code of conduct expected of Masters patrons assures this will be the most controlled environment Woods could make his return. Plus, Augusta National does not allow media inside the ropes as other PGA Tour events do. There won’t be the scrambling inside the ropes among a legion of photographers getting into position.

“I’m happy to be playing with Tiger,” Choi said. “This is good news. I hope what happens outside the ropes is left outside the ropes. I think people are educated enough to respect that.”

Woods goes off with Kuchar and Choi at 1:42 p.m. on Thursday and 10:35 a.m. on Friday.

Kuchar said he was not contacted by Augusta National officials to gauge his interest in playing with Woods.

While this might be the best venue to be paired with Woods, the Masters still holds its challenges. There will be an overpowering sense of irrelevance for Kuchar and Choi to battle with such intense interest in Woods.

Kuchar acknowledged that coming to the Masters he was wary of the possibility of being the first player to be paired with Woods since the scandal over Woods’ marital infidelities broke, but Kuchar said he’s glad the pairing is here. Kuchar said he spent time between shots Tuesday remembering what it was like when he was first paired with Woods at the ’98 Masters. Kuchar was the reigning U.S. Amateur champ back then, Woods the defending Masters champ.

“I’ve been kind of reliving ’98,” Kuchar said.

They are good memories. Kuchar shot 72 in that first pairing, Woods a 71. Kuchar made the cut and tied for 21st.

“Tiger was great to play with,” Kuchar said. “I was nervous. I was nervous to be an amateur around here, nervous to be a first-timer around here and nervous to play with Tiger. I’ve only been paired with him twice, and he’s been great to play with both times. I always anticipated that he’d be really intense and not very easy to play with but he was fun to play with.”

Kuchar said there’s a more difficult position Thursday and Friday than his pairing with Woods.

“Word has it that it’s easier to play with him than in the group in front of him, and I believe it,” Kuchar said. “I played one year at the U.S. Open in the group in front of him. There’s a lot more commotion, people jockeying for position more. [When you are paired with him], they have already solidified their position when his group gets there.”

That brings us to Steve Stricker, Ian Poulter and Yuta Ikeda. They’re in the threesome that will tee off directly in front of Woods.

“I don't think it's going to be that big of a deal,” Stricker said. “There's a lot of strict policies here. There's no running up and down the fairways. It's pretty calm. Typically, each green is loaded with people anyway. It doesn't matter when you go out there. It's five people deep up at each green. So there will be a lot of people around. I think if there’s anywhere you want to be paired ahead of him, this would probably be it. I don't think it's going to be that different for us in the group ahead.”

Stricker is going to make the best of it, but if you’re a Stricker fan, you can’t be happy. Stricker is in good form having won in Los Angeles earlier this year. He’s got himself into contention most every time he has teed it up this season. He’s 43 and coming off his best finish in the Masters last year (T-6). This might be his best chance to win here.

Poulter is taking an almost combatively positive approach to his position in front of Woods.

“It’s not tough, it’s fun,” he said. “I have no problem where I tee off. It’s going to be good.”

An incredulous reporter asked why he felt that way.

“Because I’m playing golf this week,” he said. “I don’t really care where I tee off, whether it’s with Tiger, 10 groups behind Tiger or 21 in front. They are very respectful fans inside these gates, and they will be respectful on the golf course. It really doesn’t matter where you play.”

So hold onto those blindfolds and cigarettes. They’ll need them when Woods makes his return to a regular PGA Tour stop.