ORLANDO, Fla. – Ricky Barnes paused on his way to lunch a few weeks back at Bay Hill for an impromptu game of “Tiger Woods Trivia Pursuit.” The question: Of the 23 players who have been paired with the world No. 1 for Rounds 1 and 2 at the Masters since he turned pro in 1997 only two have posted a lower 36-score.
The answer: Future Masters champion Angel Cabrera and a 22-year-old amateur named Ricky Barnes in 2003.
“Yes,” Barnes smiled while offering a Woods-esque fist pump.
It’s a testament to Barnes’ swashbuckling game that he was able to ignore the circus outside the ropes and the intensity inside the plush confines of Augusta National to post rounds of 69-74, which clipped Woods (76-73) by a staggering six strokes.
“It was a blur,” Barnes recalled.
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In Woods’ defense, 2003 was also the four-time Masters champion’s worst first- and second-round total as a pro at Augusta National by two strokes, he was in between swing coaches and in the middle of the longest major championship drought of his career (10 Grand Slam misses between the 2002 U.S. Open and ’05 Masters).
Lost within the minutia of Barnes and Cabrera’s feat is also a harbinger of what awaits the “lucky” twosome that will get paired with Woods next week when he ends his self-imposed hiatus from Tour life on “Tea Olive,” Augusta National’s rolling par-4 opener.
Getting paired with the 14-time major champion is a challenge under the best of circumstances. The intensity of Augusta National and Woods’ long-awaited return to competition promises to only intensify that reality.
“It’s tough to get paired with him. It’s usually an honor, and as an amateur it was really something special,” said Barnes, who won the 2002 U.S. Amateur to earn his spot at the Masters. “I had everything going in my head to just get (the first tee shot) airborne and I hit this big hook onto the pine needles.”
Barnes said he settled himself with a birdie at the second hole and, he admits, his 36-hole brush with the game’s top drawing card was lessened a bit by inclement weather that delayed the start of his first round until Friday and forced the completion of Round 2 on Saturday.
Still, Barnes’ accomplishment is even more impressive particularly when compared with the collective track record of those who have pulled the most coveted – or cursed, depending on one’s point of view – Grand Slam grouping.
Since he turned pro and started rewriting history books, Woods has a 71.23 scoring average for Rounds 1 and 2 at the Masters. By comparison those paired with him have an average of 73.98.
Some of the pressure players face when paired with Woods can be attributed to the year’s first major, which carries its own unique set of anxieties, and some is part and parcel of the times. Simply put, life between the ropes with Woods is a flat screen, HiDef version of a game that otherwise works fine with a set of rabbit ears and some aluminum foil.
“I still thought of him as a kid, but now . . . he’s become a legend. Now a days, because of his status, you get a little more nervous,” said Tim Herron, who matched Woods with a 144 total in 1999 after rounds of 75-69.
After Steve Stricker, who was paired with Woods for Rounds 1 and 2 in the first three playoff events last year and all three team matches at the 2009 Presidents Cup, Stewart Cink may have the most time on the clock with Woods.
Cink has been paired with Woods for the first two rounds at Augusta National twice, last year and in 2000, when he matched him with rounds of 75-72.
“It’s just a little more of everything,” said Cink, who went 69-78 last year to Woods’ 70-72 start. “The spectators are respectful, but they all want to see history and they expect Tiger to make history every year.”
Cink is also uniquely qualified to explain the differences between going out with Woods at a normal Tour event as opposed to a tee time at the year’s first major.
“When you’re head-to-head, you can finish first or second, the pressure is off,” said Cink, who lost the 36-hole final to Woods at the 2008 WGC-Match Play Championship, 8 and 7. “At the Masters, anything can happen.”
Like most things Augusta National, a first-tee Thursday encounter is just different. It’s not as though Woods makes things difficult for those he’s paired with. Quite the contrary, in fact.
“He’s great to play with,” said Mike Weir, who played Rounds 1 and 2 (74-69) in 2001 when Woods (70-66) was on his way to his second green jacket. “It’s more of the periphery around him. I wasn’t prepared for that.”
Neither will the twosome who will be paired with Woods next week, but Barnes has some advice.
“Try not to worry about what he’s doing or what’s going on in the crowds,” Barnes said. “It’s a long day.”
Actually, it’s going to be two long days. But that probably doesn’t help.