Tiger Woods was at Augusta National Golf Club on Sunday, playing a quiet practice round with Steve Stricker and U.S. Amateur Public Links champion T.J. Vogel while tuning up for the 77th Masters Tournament.
The first major of the year has Woods as the favorite. That will be the case at least during the buildup to Thursday’s first round, with the hype starting with Monday’s first “official” practice rounds for the 94-player field.
When the tournament ends, Woods, the world’s No. 1-ranked player, is expected to have his fifth green jacket (one away from tying Jack Nicklaus), 15th major championship (three away from tying Nicklaus) and 78th PGA Tour win (four away from Sam Snead’s record).
There’s one problem with that scenario: The consensus pretournament favorite seldom wins these days in the Masters. In the past seven years, none has.
Of course, most of that is because Woods, the favorite or co-favorite five of those years, hasn’t won the Masters since he beat Chris DiMarco in a sudden-death playoff in 2005.
But Woods is so hot this year, with three PGA Tour wins, that he could break the pretournament favorite jinx, not to mention his seven-year winless streak in the Masters and his nearly five-year major championship drought.
“I’m always surprised when he doesn’t play well because we all expect Tiger to either win or play well at all times,” 1998 Masters champion Mark O’Meara said Sunday before a practice round at Augusta National. “There has been a little bit of lull certainly in what he’s accomplished in the game. He had a lot of personal, off-course and health issues going on in his life.”
O’Meara said Woods is winning regularly this year because he has regained his putting form (thanks in part to a tip from Stricker) and because his swing has “settled down” under the watchful eye of instructor Sean Foley.
“Winning breeds winning,” O’Meara said. “When a guy’s won three out of five tournaments this year (on the PGA Tour) and he comes to Augusta, where he’s had great success and he’s putting the way he’s been putting, there is reason to believe he’s the odds-on favorite to win.
“But there are 90-plus other guys here that are very good that are going to challenge him. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see him play well again this week with an opportunity to win.”
Will Woods win it? Not if recent history has a say.
Since the 2006 Masters, the only times Woods wasn’t the favorite were 2010 and 2011. In 2010, he was playing in his first tournament in nearly five months in the wake of a self-imposed break after his life exploded into scandal. Ernie Els, who had won two of his previous starts, was favored. He tied for 18th place, and Phil Mickelson won his third green jacket.
In 2011, Mickelson was the man to beat. Not only was he the defending champion, but he’d also just come off a torrid weekend at the Houston Open (63-65), where he finished at 20-under and won by three shots. Talk of Mickelson winning was so prevalent that Graeme McDowell said sarcastically before the tournament that they should go ahead and give Mickelson the green jacket.
Mickelson ended up tying for 27th place as Charl Schwartzel won.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if any of the guys in the field win, and I won’t be surprised if any of the guys in the field don’t win,” 2007 Masters champion Zach Johnson said.
As for Woods, Johnson said “he’s playing well and he knows this golf course, but the talent is so deep.”
Johnson said just because a player isn’t in great form coming into the Masters doesn’t mean he can’t win this week.
“There’s no cycle to it, there’s no rhythm to it,” said Johnson, who was ranked 56th in the world when he won the 2007 Masters. “You’re involving expectations, and I think that’s ridiculous. Because I think on any given week anybody can win.”
That is what happened in 2007 when Johnson won.
“Exactly, that’s a perfect example, or Trevor Immelman the next year,” Johnson said. “The list goes on and on.”
“I think it’s very rare when the favorite wins any tournament,” Keegan Bradley said Sunday after a practice round. “It’s so random sometimes. Anybody can win any given week. But here especially, the guys who have been here a bunch are tough to beat.”
Last year, Woods was the Masters favorite for the first time in three years, alongside Rory McIlroy, who had won the Honda Classic in early March. Woods had won the Arnold Palmer Invitational two weeks before the Masters.
What happened? They tied for 40th place, with only McIlroy shooting a round in the 60s.
Just because Woods has won three times this season doesn’t make him a shoo-in for that fifth green jacket.
The last player to have won three times in the first leg of the PGA Tour season leading into the Masters was Woods, in 2003. He shot 76-73-66-75 and tied for 15th place.