Tiger, Rory, Phil, Augusta ... believe the hype


AUGUSTA, Ga. – From unrealistic expectations normally comes disappointment. If something is too good to be true, it probably is.

Beware buzz words like epic, awesome and historic, because the capriciousness of competition historically tempers even the most optimistic forecast. Truth is grand, title bouts rarely go to script (see Watson, Bubba, 2012 Masters).

But as the stars and azaleas align for this week’s Masters it’s impossible not to imagine the Sunday possibilities – Tiger vs. Phil, Tiger vs. Rory, Tiger vs. Sneds. OK, Tiger head-to-head with almost anyone late on Sunday is worth the price of admission. It’s been that way since he won one for the ages in 1997.

The difference this year is that for the first time in at least seven calendars the entire cast seems up to the task.

Woods has now played 14 major championships since he collected Grand Slam glory and his title drought is at an inexplicable 0-for-7 at Augusta National. In Woods’ first six Masters as a professional he won three green jackets – that’s right, he batted .500 straight out of spring training. In his last 10 starts on the former fruit nursery he has just one victory.

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Whether you attribute that record to the so-called “Tiger proofing” of the Peachtree playground in 2002, when officials lengthened nine holes, or simply a competitive quirk really doesn’t matter. For Woods, the seven-year itch has turned into a nasty rash.

“I wouldn’t have been happy with that,” Woods said on Tuesday when asked how he would have felt in 2005 had he known it would be at least another seven years before he slipped into his fifth green jacket.

For Woods, the dichotomy of the drought is simple. In the seven Masters he’s played since outdueling Chris DiMarco in ’05, he has finished inside the top 10 in putting for the week just once.

Although Augusta National officially added driving and chipping to the annual putting contest on Monday when they announced a new junior initiative that will be played at the club in 2014, winning the Masters is, and will always be, about putting.

“I was there ball-striking-wise a few years through that stretch, where I think I hit it pretty well. Hit a lot of greens, but just didn't make enough putts,” said Woods, who has finished inside the top 10 in all but one of his last seven Masters. “You have to make the majority of the putts inside 10 feet, and you've got to be just a great lag putter for the week.”

For all his near-misses, however, Woods sounded positively upbeat on Tuesday, the byproduct of one of his fastest starts on Tour in years. He has three victories in five starts and, perhaps even more important this week, leads the circuit in strokes gained-putting, the convoluted formula that is the benchmark for success at Augusta National.

But Woods’ 2013 momentum is only part of the frenzied formula that has turned the 77th Masters into the acme of hyperbole.

In contrast to Woods’ relative swoon since officials began tinkering with Augusta National, Phil Mickelson has won all three of his green jackets since the changes and has only been out of contention on Sunday twice since 2000.

What Lefty lacks in recent form – in his last three starts he’s gone T-3 (Doral), missed cut (Bay Hill) and T-16 (Houston) – he makes up for in passion. In short, the right turn onto Magnolia Lane off of Washington Road is akin to a competitive B-12 shot for the big left-hander.

“Having the opportunity to be in the thick of it and to feel that excitement, to feel that pressure, to grace Amen Corner knowing that you need birdies and trying to win a green jacket, that is the greatest thrill a golfer can possibly experience,” Mickelson said.

The thrill for fans is simply to watch Mickelson, both on and off the golf course, and he didn’t disappoint on Tuesday.

The man who has played the Masters with two drivers and one of the longest courses in U.S. Open history with no driver will tee off on Thursday with something in between in his bag.

Mickelson has replaced his driver with what has been dubbed “Phrankenwood,” a fairway wood chassis with a driver face. Or, put another way, it is essentially a 2-wood.

“It just bores through the air and I don't have to manipulate it and it just goes so far,” Mickelson said.

However unintended, Mickelson’s maneuvers dovetail with a collective move to play this year’s Masters with a more measured approach. Power, it seems, is passé, likely mitigated by lush conditions, in favor of control.

It is a philosophy that will be embraced by Rory McIlroy, of all players. McIlroy, the man who blew his title chances into the cabins right of the 10th fairway in 2011, has emerged from an early slump and is sounding surprisingly restrained.

“I’m going to try to hit it into the fat parts of the fairway,” said McIlroy, who heightened this week’s pre-tournament rhetoric with his runner-up finish last week in Texas. “Is there really a difference between hitting an 8-iron or a 6-iron into a par 4? There's certain holes on this golf course that if you play them the right way, you play them smart, you can make a birdie every day or you can definitely limit the mistakes and not make a big number.”

But if the Big 3 has created a vacuum, the list of legitimate contenders goes well beyond the top of the marquee.

World No. 3 Justin Rose may be the game’s most consistent player having finished inside the top 20 in every event he’s played in 2013, and following his runner-up to Woods at Bay Hill he seems poised to take the next step; while Brandt Snedeker, the hottest player in golf following runner-up finishes at Torrey Pines and Phoenix, and his victory at Pebble Beach, appears fully recovered from a muscle injury.

Historically, embracing expectations is the quickest path to disappointment, but on the eve of the year’s first major it’s impossible to not revel in the hype.