- The Washington Times - Friday, April 8, 2005

AUGUSTA, Ga. — When exactly did Augusta National turn into Tiger Woods’ personal torture chamber? He used to own this fragrant place, not so long ago; the course seemed designed with him in mind.

By the age of 26, he had won the Masters three times — and that figured to be just the beginning. Give him another decade, the thinking went, and he’d have a larger collection of green jackets than Jack Nicklaus, maybe even Jack and Arnie Palmer put together.

But then Hootie Johnson and his friends started tinkering with the layout — just as Woods began tinkering with his swing — and suddenly Augusta began to bite Tiger back. In 2003, the year after his last Masters title, he opened with a 76 … and couldn’t overcome it. In 2004, he opened with a 75 … and never became a serious factor.

And yesterday — yikes! He was only a few holes into his round when he putted his ball off the 13th green and into the creek — while going for an eagle if you can believe that. Then he almost holed his approach on No. 1, a brutal 435-yard par 4, only to have the ball strike the flagstick and kick into the bunker. (After which, understandably if not heroically, Mr. Woods threw his club.)

It feels, almost, like the fates have turned against Tiger here. Clearly, this is no longer his exclusive domain. When someone else wins the green jacket now — Mike Weir, Phil Mickelson, whoever — it’s not some fluke or aberration, it’s really not. And yet the oddsmakers, perhaps out of reflex, continue to list him as the favorite coming into the event. Are they not seeing what we’re seeing, or are they just the last people on earth still mesmerized by the Woods Mystique?

His fellow golfers certainly aren’t — not at Augusta, not anywhere. While Tiger struggled in the soggy conditions yesterday, conditions that kept the first round from being completed, Mickelson bounced back from a bogey on the first hole to get to 2 under by nightfall, a healthy four shots ahead of Woods.

Vijay Singh, meanwhile, was actually 3 under at one point before dropping a stroke at No. 11. Both looked primed to win their second Masters — looked, indeed, the way Woods looked, once upon a time.

Appearing equally resolute was Retief Goosen, another in the group at 2 under. Tiger is going to have to make up serious ground the next three days on all three of them. Can’t say I like his chances.

These slow starts of his are particularly perplexing. Not only do they make life infinitely more difficult for him, they’re just not the kind of thing a Golfer For The Ages does. I mean, check out Nicklaus’ first-round scores from 1964 (when he was 24) to ‘79: 71, 67, 68, 72, 69, 68, 71, 70, 68, 69, 69, 68, 67, 72, 72, 69. For those of you scoring at home, that’s 16 straight Masters in which the Golden Bear shot par or better on the first day — and on 13 of those days, he broke par, often by three or four shots. Talk about being ready for a major championship.

Woods, on the other hand, has never broken 70 in the first round, not once in eight tries as a pro. And unless he rallies when he plays his final six holes this morning, he’s looking at a 74 or 75 — another huge hole to climb out of. (Especially since he isn’t likely to put up a 63 at Augusta, the way he did in his two earlier victories this year in the Buick Invitational and the Ford Championship at Doral.)

Not that Tiger was the only immortal-in-the-making to have trouble yesterday. Ernie Els, another of the Fab Four, started bogey-bogey, looking more like the “Big Wheezy” than the “Big Easy.” But Els doesn’t have a walk-in closet full of green jackets; Tiger does. And so the expectations for him are a little greater.

It’s his own darn fault. He didn’t have to win eight majors in his first six years on the tour. He didn’t have to shoot 18 under in the Masters or blitz the field by 12 shots in the 2000 U.S. Open. But since he did, well, it’s only natural to wonder what the heck is going on, why he can’t get out of the blocks when it matters most.

One of his pals, Jesper Parnevik, offered the opinion that it’s “tough to be game ready” when you have to hang around the clubhouse all morning. “We want to get going,” he said, “[and then we have] to start the day with a wait. That’s the only excuse I can give with the scores not being better today.”

Of course, Parnevik is the guy who was so not “game ready” that he forgot to bring his clubs to Augusta, somehow left ‘em at home in Florida. Unless his play improves — and fast — Tiger may be wishing he’d done the same.

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