Tiger’s Bear-like aura at Augusta

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3:52:01 PM ET. 04/17/2014




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Given the landscape at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, it was understandable to hear such a sentiment last week: “It’s so difficult to win out here.”

You want a list of players who can vouch for that? Pile up the paper, and just as an example, at Arnie’s get-together alone you had Skip Kendall, Brett Quigley, Bubba Watson and Mathew Goggin in the field. All solid players, but combined they are 0-for-1,029, so you know they won’t argue.

But get this: Those words were uttered by Tiger Woods.

Oh, yeah. Now there’s a study in PGA Tour struggles. What is he, 66-for-225 since turning pro? That translates into a winning clip of .293, which is unthinkable. For proof, consider that in his first 225 starts as a pro, Jack Nicklaus had 41 wins, for .182.

No wonder the tributes cut across a wide path of the PGA Tour brotherhood, even to those aboard for parts of six decades.

“I never thought there’d be a player like him. He’s so dominant,” Bob Goalby said – and that was days before Woods authored his latest epic, coming from five back through 54 to win for the sixth time at Bay Hill.

As he prepares for his 50th consecutive trip to the Masters, Goalby recently turned 80 and underwent hip-replacement surgery, testaments that, like all of us, he is no match for the aging process. If anything is, it would be that annual drive down Magnolia Lane. It never grows old, not when it produces an April ambience amid azaleas and an endless stretch of green carpet.

Into such a magical setting, Goalby will arrive with no qualms about today’s Augusta National. It is Woods’ domain.

“He’ll win four of the next six. You bet your ass he will,” the 1968 Masters champion said.

What lends credence to Goalby’s words is the perspective with which he speaks. He played at a time when Augusta belonged to Nicklaus.

“There wasn’t much chance against him,” Goalby said. “Every year, guys would put pressure on themselves. Guys were scared of him, like they’re scared now of Tiger.”

It is eerie to compare Nicklaus and Woods at Augusta. Preparing for his 13th Masters as a pro, Woods owns four green jackets; Nicklaus also had four in his first 12 pro tries. Nicklaus went back-to-back in his fourth and fifth visits, when he was 25 and 26; Woods won in his fifth and sixth trips, when he was 25 and 26. Early on, Nicklaus often made the Masters his seventh or eighth tournament of the season; ditto, Woods.

And this: At 30 and in his ninth professional Masters, Nicklaus finished eighth to set in motion a 10-year stretch in which he never was out of the top 10, with two victories, two seconds and two thirds. Woods was 29 when in his ninth Masters as a professional he won in 2005 and with subsequent finishes of T-3, T-2 and second, there is every reason to expect a run similar to Nicklaus’.

“If I’m in his camp, I’m ecstatic in what I’ve seen his first events (back from surgery),” Billy Harmon said. “There’s no reason whatsoever he’s not the favorite. There’s nobody who can be even considered close. A no-brainer.”

The youngest of 1948 Masters champ Claude Harmon’s four sons, Billy Harmon is an astute swing coach on par with brothers Butch and Craig. He appreciates the demanding challenge that is Bobby Jones’ monument to the game, for he has been to Augusta as a champion’s son, a caddie and a fan. He figured no one could play the course like Nicklaus – “Had to be pretty much that way; he won six times” – but he’ll graciously ask for a mulligan.

“We’ve never seen anything like Tiger,” Harmon said. “Tiger has to do so many things wrong not to win.”

Of course, he has left without the green jacket each of the past three Aprils and eight of the 12 times he has been there as a pro, so Woods is not unbeatable at Augusta.

Unlike the other majors where ballstriking is key, the Masters comes down to putting. It’s a strong part of Woods’ arsenal, but it’s often the most fickle. At Augusta, someone’s incredible putting week likely can hold off whatever power and ballstriking prowess Woods throws down. For evidence, see Mike Weir (2003), Zach Johnson (2007) or Trevor Immelman (2008).

There is valid reason to suggest Phil Mickelson as a favorite (“He’s won a couple of times and is playing with a lot of confidence,” David Toms said), but when you step back from concepts, theories and mindless statistics, it comes down to this: Woods is to Augusta what Nicklaus once was.

Perhaps only more so.

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