Hate to be Rude: Uncertainty in Augusta

Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods played together in the final round of the 2009 Masters.

Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods played together in the final round of the 2009 Masters.

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The Masters

Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club

4/10/2014 - 4/13/2014

Pos Name Thru Today Overall
1 Bubba Watson $1,620,000 600 -8
2 Jonas Blixt $792,000 270 -5
2 Jordan Spieth $792,000 270 -5
4 Miguel Angel Jimenez $432,000 0 -4
5 Rickie Fowler $342,000 115 -2
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AUGUSTA, Ga. – This appears to be by far the most wide-open Masters in years, perhaps a couple of decades. Tiger Woods, winner of four green jackets, hasn’t played this year. Phil Mickelson, owner of a pair, hasn’t contended this year. Ernie Els is the hottest player around, what with two PGA Tour victories in March, but has missed the cut in the past three years at Augusta National.

How unusual has the run-up been? Well, it’s the first time since 1992 that neither Mickelson nor Woods has won a tournament leading up to the Masters.

So who wins? Have a strong feeling about Retief Goosen. He’s quietly hot. He has won two majors. He plays well at Augusta National, having finished third or better four times. And he has six top 10s this year.

On top of that, he’s unflappable. He seems oblivious to commotion around him. To watch him, you’d think he doesn’t even know Tiger Woods is back.

Or had problems.

What’s holding Mickelson back? Early in the year, putting. Lately, loose swings. His goal is to piece the two together.

By his way of thinking, his current game stands a better chance at Augusta National because he feels he doesn’t have to be as exacting as at some courses.

“There are places where you can miss it and still make par on every hole,” he said. “So I don’t feel like I have to have my perfect ball-striking game to be able to go around this course and shoot in the 60s. I think that’s why I enter this tournament with a lot less stress.”

Blonde Tour wife update: Elin Woods: not coming. Amy Mickelson: She’s going to try to attend later in the week, according to her husband.

He isn’t saying, but her recovery from breast cancer might have something to do with his substandard performance so far this year. As he said Tuesday of her condition, “We’re OK long-term. But day-to-day has been difficult, and the medicines and so forth have been challenging, and that has made the quality of life not (desirable).”

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Tiger Woods answered questions in a press conference Monday for the first time since his Thanksgiving night accident that led to revelations of multiple extramarital affairs.

My four-word take on Woods’ news conference Monday, his first since news of his Thanksgiving accident and sex scandal: More slippery than revealing.

The latest step was another piece of closure for Woods and clears the way for him to focus on playing a golf tournament for the first time this year. He was apologetic and remorseful, as he was in public addresses in March and April. He was more open than in the past.

But he’ll never be an open book, so there’s no need to expect him to be. One reason is that he doesn’t speak with an anecdotal tongue. Sprinkling anecdotes in speech helps humanize a person and create connection with others.

Amen to Geoff Ogilvy. “The best part of this week is (Woods is) playing golf again and it’s back to some sense or normalcy.”

Couldn’t agree more.

Another great thing about this week: The curiosity surrounding Woods’ performance is probably at an all-time high.

How will he do? Will he contend? Will he win? Will his concentration wane? Will he be rusty? Will any spectator boo him?

Questions now. Answers Thursday-Sunday.

“We’ve spent 15 years underestimating his ability,” Ogilvy said. “So I have 100 percent confidence he can win.”

Jack Nicklaus put on a clinic on how to conduct an interview late Tuesday afternoon. He even extended the session another 15 minutes after the predetermined allotted time expired.

Nicklaus answered several questions about Woods, as you’d expect, before finally saying, “Let’s try something else. If anybody has anything other than Tiger questions, let’s finish a couple of those.”

Considering Woods talked up living a good life over winning golf trophies on Monday, Nicklaus was asked if he thinks Woods is gunning for his record of 18 major championships.

“Come on, give me a break,” he said, prompting laughter. “Of course he is. Why do you think he’s here? I mean, I don’t think he’s here for his health.”

Well, actually he is, in part. His mental health.

Mark O’Meara played practice rounds with Woods on Sunday and Tuesday and pronounced him “ready.”

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Tiger Woods and Mark O'Meara walk off the 18th green Tuesday after playing a practice round together.

To a point.

“He’s not totally there yet; he hit a couple of stray drives,” O’Meara said Tuesday afternoon. “Relative to the past, his game is a 7 or 8 (out of 10). But he can win here at 7 or 8. He doesn’t have to be a 10.”

O’Meara said he noticed a difference in Woods’ decorum.

“I thought he was better,” O’Meara said. “He smiled, waved and acknowledged their applause. He wasn’t doing that as much the last two to three years.”

O’Meara said Woods is on the right track toward transformation but cautioned, “People don’t change overnight.”

The Champions Dinner was Tuesday night. Last year’s winner, Angel Cabrera, served blood sausage, among other things.

“I hope he enjoys it,” Nicklaus said, drawing laughs.

Some leading players, including Padraig Harrington, say Woods might even be a better player now that he isn’t taking the baggage and stress of a secret life to the golf course.

Time will tell, but I’m not so sure.

I’m fairly certain he would take the status quo in terms on winning percentage. After all, he has won 51 percent of his Tour starts since July 2006.

David Duval is back at the Masters for the first time since 2006. He lost his game. But he found confidence in runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open last June and the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

He has been wildly inconsistent because of what he calls “silly mistakes.” But in his mind, he’s not the darkhouse you might think he is. “I feel I have a chance to win the golf tournament,” he said.

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Jeff Rude’s “I Hate To Be Rude” column appears on Golfweek.com on Wednesday, the same day as his video show of the same name.

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