Masters 2013: Defending champ Bubba Watson says Tiger Woods ‘is playing the best’

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The high standard Tiger Woods sets for himself at Augusta National Golf Club — nothing short of a victory — hasn’t been met since 2005. He seems primed to change that starting today with the first round of the 77th Masters Tournament.

The 37-year-old Woods is “not happy” he hasn’t won more green jackets.

He does have four of them in 18 starts — only Jack Nicklaus has more, with six.

Still, Woods is chasing history. He needs five more major championship victories to pass Nicklaus‘ career record of 18. To go with his four Masters wins, Woods has four PGA Championships and three U.S. and British opens each.

In addition to his fallow period in the Masters, Woods has been in a major drought, too. His last one came nearly five years ago.

All signs point to Woods being there on the final nine Sunday with a chance to break the dry spells. He’s the only player to have won more than once on the PGA Tour this year (he has three victories) and his last win, three weeks ago, vaulted him back to world No. 1, a spot he hadn’t occupied since Oct. 30, 2010. Before last year’s Masters, he was ranked seventh and had just broken a two-year-plus victory drought. Since then, he’s won five times.

This also helps: Woods has his personal life in order, is healthy, has settled into his Sean Foley-taught swing and is putting like the Tiger Woods of old.

“He’s playing the best,” defending champion Bubba Watson said of Woods, his former dawn patrol practice-round playing partner. “He’s No. 1 in the world. If you’re No. 1 in the world, I think you should be the favorite. It would be kind of weird if he’s the underdog and he’s No. 1 in the world.”

In 16 rounds this season on the PGA Tour, Woods is 42-under, and 32-under in his past two starts.

“I feel comfortable with every aspect of my game,” Woods said. “I feel that I’ve improved and I’ve got more consistent, and I think the wins show that. That’s something that I’m proud of so far this year, and hopefully I can continue it this week and the rest of the year.”

Three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson said even when Woods wasn’t playing his best golf in 2010 and 2011, “You’re always looking at his score. You’re always worried about him making that big run the way he’s always done throughout his career.

“And now that he’s doing it and winning tournaments in such a dominating fashion, it does have the feel of what we expect to see from Tiger.”

With the exception of 2012 when he shot 72-75-72-74 and tied for 40th, Woods hasn’t been out of the top six in a Masters since his last victory.

“That’s the misleading part; it’s not like I’ve been out of there with no chance of winning this championship,” he said. “I’ve been there, and unfortunately just haven’t got it done. I’ve made runs to get myself in it. I’ve been there in the mix on the back nine, either not executed, not made enough putts or didn’t take care of the par 5s, or whatever it may be.”

Watson, whose world ranking has dropped from fourth when he won the Masters to 14th this week, hasn’t won a tournament since his victory at Augusta National.

“Who knows how I’ll play?” asked Watson. “I could miss the cut; I could win. You never know what’s going to happen. I feel the same, I feel good. But if you’re a stats guy, you look and say, ‘Bubba is not playing as good as last year.’”

If his game isn’t good enough to contend for a second green jacket this week, Watson wants to at least make the cut. As the defending champion, he’s required to put the jacket on the new champion Sunday evening. Watson, who believes he has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, wouldn’t enjoy being idle for two days.

“I don’t want to have to sit around and give somebody the green jacket,” Watson said. “I want to be here on Sunday, playing.”

He probably will be. Even without his ‘A’ game, Watson knows how to score at Augusta National. He’s never missed the cut in four starts.

Rory McIlroy, the No. 2-ranked player in the world, has his early-season issues ironed out, and could be a factor. He finished second in the Texas Open last week in an emergency start to knock some rust off his game. He did it playing a course (TPC San Antonio) that he’d never seen before, shooting 12-under par.

“As I said, last week wasn’t about the golf swing,” McIlroy said. “It was just about getting competitive play. I felt like I accomplished that, and I played well, got myself in the mix in the tournament for the first time this year, which was nice. And would anything less than a win be a disappointment this week? Yeah, it would be.”

Mickelson, who shot the third-lowest score in PGA Tour history (two off the record) in winning this season in Phoenix after a first-round 60, is almost always a contender at Augusta National. In the past five years, he’s only been out of the top-five once, and won in 2010.

All eyes will also be on Tianlang Guan, the 14-year-old amateur from China, who will become the youngest participant in tournament history Thursday at 12:24 p.m.

“You can’t believe how good he putts it,” Mickelson said. “And this can be a great golf course for him. I think he’s going to make a lot of putts out here, because he’s got great touch and great vision.”

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