2005: ‘The look’ is back, and so is Tiger

Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

Tiger Woods was standing off the 18th green at Bay Hill following a practice round a couple weeks ago, deflecting a few questions from reporters about the upcoming Masters. His message: His mind and focus were on the tournament at hand, not on one somewhere in his future.

As is the case on any of life’s many highways, though, it’s human nature to glance over the dash to view the road ahead. This time of year, Tiger Woods knows the road around the bend as well as anybody.

All standard company lines aside, Woods wrapped up his Bay Hill media session and was headed toward the exit when he was asked when Augusta really starts creeping into his thoughts.

“January,” he answered.

And now he’s almost there, his wheels practically rolling down Magnolia Lane. Golf’s spring training tune-up season has ended, and the major season – Tiger Season – is upon us. The man Jack Nicklaus once proclaimed would win as many green jackets as Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer combined – and those two didn’t do too badly, collecting 10 – is back on the prowl. As Woods readies for his 11th Masters, despite how good his peers are playing, they had better watch out.

Just by the way Woods is carrying himself, it’s evident he’s the man to beat once again.

The past two years, Woods has been a shadow of his self on the curvaceous hills of Augusta National. In 2003, he left the hunt early on Sunday when he abandoned his game plan and wildly sprayed a driver into the right-side bushes off the short par-4 third.

Last year he was no closer to contending than Palmer was. Woods opened with 75, eventually tied for 22nd, and was on his jet back home to Orlando, Fla., by the time Mike Weir slipped the green jacket over Phil Mickelson’s broad shoulders in Leftyville.

Woods won’t be on the undercard this time. The look is back, and he will be there on Sunday, if not at the top, somewhere very close. The Great Drought – his 0-for-10 major skein – could be nearing an end. Rest assured, this isn’t as sure a bet as death and taxes, or at least not the lock it once was. From the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah to the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, Woods won seven of 11 majors as the rest of golf stood by and tussled for second. But his once meek supporting cast on the PGA Tour, those who’d been called on the carpet for their collective heart and pluck, are firing back.

Golf’s Big Four – Woods, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Mickelson – have become the Fab Five (add Retief Goosen). Or even the Sensational Six (with rising plodder Padraig Harrington, who may have to miss this year’s Masters because of his father’s failing health). And don’t lose sight of Sergio Garcia, David Toms and Adam Scott. Heading into last week’s Players Championship, only Goosen, who had played sparingly, and Garcia had yet to win in 2005, a season in which the cream continues to rise.

All in all, having so many top players playing so well makes for an exciting landscape, with no shortage of potential storylines. It’s like the old days of heavyweight boxing, when the Ali-Frazier-Norton-Foreman era carried the fight game.

Exciting times.

“We all feed off each other, definitely,” said Goosen. “Who knows? Maybe we’ll have a little shootout on Sunday at Augusta.”

Had Singh putted better at Doral, sank a veritable gimme in the Honda playoff and pulled off an aggressive approach on the 72nd hole at Bay Hill, he could have been home in Ponte Vedra Beach last week trying to complete an unthinkable Florida Slam. Singh has the power game to win at the Masters, where he won in 2000, but has been average at best with the putter this season. A Masters truism: One cannot be average on Augusta’s greens and win.

For Els, Augusta has been something of a tease. The Big Easy stayed away from the costly mistakes that have derailed him in Masters past and seemingly did everything he needed to do to win last April. Lo and behold, Mickelson cruised home in 31 strokes to steal Ernie’s jacket.

If anything holds back Els at the Masters, it is perhaps that he may want to win there too much. You can bet he’d like nothing more than to ice down a couple of buckets of Castle Lager for the boys at the 2006 Champions Dinner.

What will Phil do next? Well, one thing we know: Though he’s been a human EKG through the years with his up-and-down performances at golf’s biggest tournaments, he’s been a rock at Augusta. In his past six trips there, he has not finished worse than seventh, and only once in that stretch was he outside the top 10 in greens in regulation. Now that the 800-pound major gorilla is off his back, he has his ticket punched to Augusta until he’s old and gray. Tee to green, Mickelson may be better suited for that golf course than even Woods, with the left-handed Mickelson able to hit soft cuts around the bend at Nos. 2, 10 and 13, where righties face the far more difficult task of turning over hard draws.

Interestingly, Woods’ revamped swing has him hitting more fades, which may not be the best way to get around Augusta, though it worked OK for that Nicklaus fellow. Woods recently was asked if he ever had played his best and lost; his answer was a resounding “No.” If he plays well enough to win his fourth green jacket at Augusta, seat belts may be in order for a monster year.

Not to get too far ahead . . . but the U.S. Open is at Pinehurst, the spot where Woods six years ago made a Sunday run the day Payne Stewart won. The British Open returns to St. Andrews, where Woods never found a bunker, toyed with the field, shot 19 under and won by eight in 2000. By the PGA at Baltusrol, could we all be talking Slam? Preposterous, right?

First things first. Right now, it’s April, Augusta beckons and Tiger Woods has his swagger back. The world must be back on its axis.

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