INSIDE THE ROPES By TOM LaMARRE
Inside the ropes – Bookies from Las Vegas to London have made Tiger Woods a prohibitive favorite to win the Masters this week. Of course, Woods has had almost everything to do with it, winning three times already this season and six times in 20 PGA Tour events dating to the 2011 Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he broke a three-year-losing streak. Perhaps the primary factors have been Woods, once again No. 1 in the World Golf Rankings, being the healthiest he has been in several years and getting a putting tip from Steve Stricker before the WGC-Cadillac Championship. “If I get healthy, I know I can play this game at a high level,” Woods said of his mind-set the last few years. “I know I can be where I’m contending in every event, contending in major championships and being consistent day in and day out, if I got healthy. That was the first step in the process. Once I got there, then my game turned.
” … The three events that I’ve won, I’ve putted well. Stricks helped me out there at Doral and got me into position where I felt like I was now putting like I did at Torrey (while winning the Farmers Insurance Open earlier this year).” This is the third season in which Woods has gone to Augusta National with three victories in hand, and it must be pointed out that when that happened in 2000, 2003 and 2008, he came away without the Green Jacket. In 2000, he finished fifth, but then claimed the last three majors of the year in one of the greatest seasons of all-time. In 2003, he tied for 15th while trying to become the first player to capture three consecutive Masters and came up empty-handed in the Grand Slam tournaments that year. In 2008, he finished second behind Trevor Immelman, but two months later claimed his 14th major title in a epic 19-hole playoff against Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines, another course on which he has won eight times. While he has won the Masters four times, Tiger hasn’t done it since 2005, even though he finished no worse than sixth in six consecutive tries before tying for 40th last year. Woods has won his last two tournaments ahead of the Masters, the Cadillac and the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and the last time he did that, in 2001, Tiger was wearing green over his red shirt on Sunday night.
“Any time I can win prior to Augusta, it always feels good,” Woods said after winning for the eighth time at Bay Hill last month to claim his 77th PGA Tour victory, five short of Sam Snead’s record. If and when Woods claims his 15th major title, the talk about him catching Jack Nicklaus at 18 will heat up again. Not that it has every really died down, pro or con. “I still think he’ll break my record,” Nicklaus said last month at the Honda Classic. “Tiger’s talent, at 37 … it’s not that old. I won four after that. They were spread out. It wasn’t that difficult. “I don’t think for Tiger to get four or five more, or six or seven, is that big a stretch.” Notah Begay, Woods’ good friend and former Stanford teammate who is a commentator for the Golf Channel, said recently that Tiger is feeling so good that he is thinking more along the lines of 20 major titles. And Woods himself told ESPN over the weekend that he doesn’t want to finish with 18. “I don’t want four,” he said in an interview with Mike Tirico. “More than that. Four gets me to 18. I don’t want a tie.” That Woods is such an overwhelming favorite this week also has much to do with the fact that Rory McIlroy did not play well this season until finishing second last week in the Valero Texas Open after leaving Titleist for Nike, allowing Woods to take the No. 1 ranking from him.
That’s made it easy to forget that McIlroy won the last major, the PGA Championship, by a record eight strokes in a Tiger-like performance last August at Kiawah Island to match Woods with two Grand Slam titles by the age of 23. In addition, three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson has run hot-and-cold this season, although Phil the Thrill always seems to find another gear simply by driving down Magnolia Lane. Beyond that formidable threesome, defending champion Bubba Watson, who beat Louis Oosthuizen with a hook shot for the ages from the trees on the second playoff hole, leads a deep list of challengers. Among those who have to be mentioned as contenders this week include the Fab Four of Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Justin Rose and Ian Poulter, all trying to become the first Englishman to claim a major title since Nick Faldo won the Masters in 1996, thanks to Greg Norman’s final-round collapse. Also on what is not actually a short list are Oosthuizen, Stricker, Ernie Els, Dustin Johnson, Keegan Bradley, Charl Schwartzel, Adam Scott, Matt Kuchar, Steve Stricker, Webb Simpson, Sergio Garcia, Graeme McDowell, Hunter Mahan and Brandt Snedeker, the best player anywhere for the first two months of the season until being slowed by a rib injury. The field is so deep that we probably missed a few. “Obviously, (Woods has) got to be the favorite going in there,” 2003 Masters champion Mike Weir said recently. “He’s shown signs of (the Woods of old), especially his short game. That’s the aspect of your game you have to have around there. I don’t care how good you hit the ball, you have to putt well there. “It’s such an open tournament now, there’s so many great players in the world, and the separation between everybody is so close. Even though, as well as Tiger’s played this year, I think he knows that there are so many players with power now.” For those inclined to make a wager, the prudent play would seem to be not to bet the house on Woods, but not to bet against him, either.