The first tee shot clattered through a pair of pines on the left side of the 13th fairway, finally landing on the wrong side of Rae’s Creek. Tiger Woods tried again, and this wasn’t any better. Fans peered across the fairway and only heard the ball rifle through some bushes.
“He’s hitting another one,” a man announced from the gallery.
The third shot with a fairway metal caused them to retreat until it turned with a slight draw, clipping a pine branch and settling in the second cut of rough.
Woods played nine holes Wednesday morning in his final tuneup for the Masters, and how he played was of little consequence. Even so, that snapshot from the 13th tee was another reminder how quickly the best plans can fall apart, even for the No. 1 player on top of his game, especially at Augusta National.
Think back to Woods at his absolute best.
He won 10 times in 2000, including three majors, and finished no worse than fifth in 19 of his 22 tournaments worldwide. Going into the Masters, he either won or finished second in 10 of his previous 11 PGA Tour events. It felt as though everyone was playing for second at Augusta that year.
Woods made a double bogey and a triple bogey in a span of three holes, shot 75 in the opening round and never caught up.
The hype over Woods is not that strong this year, though there is no doubt who is driving the conversation.
Those who have played with him on the course or hit balls next to him on the range talked about how he never missed a shot. His putting has been pure since he got that tip from Steve Stricker last month at Doral. And it shows in the scores. Woods has won his last two tournaments, at Doral and Bay Hill, and neither was terribly close.
When the Masters begins today, he is the odds-on favorite to end his five-year drought in the majors, and win a green jacket for the first time since 2005.
Trouble is, Augusta National doesn’t play favorites.
“Obviously, Tiger is Tiger,” said Scott Piercy, who will play alongside Woods and Luke Donald in the opening two rounds. “He’s always going to be that target. He knows it, and that’s how he wants it. But there’s a lot of people getting closer. And the golfing gods, or whatever you want to call them, have a lot to do with winning. A bounce here, a bounce there. A lip in, a lip out.”
Angel Cabrera got one of those bounces off a pine tree and back into the 18th fairway in 2009 that helped him save par and win a playoff on the next hole. Sure, he was a former U.S. Open champion, but the big Argentine was No. 69 in the world that year, the lowest-ranked player to ever win the Masters.
The hole got in the way twice for Charl Schwartzel in 2011, once on a chip across the first green that fell for birdie, another a shot from the third fairway that dropped for eagle. He finished with four straight birdies to win.
It has been 11 years since the No. 1 player in the world — Woods — won the Masters.
There is always the usual assortment of players who seem to contend every year for a green jacket. Phil Mickelson is a three-time Masters champion, his most recent in 2010 when he arrived at Augusta National without having come close to winning that year. Fred Couples was tied for the 36-hole lead last year at age 52. Rory McIlroy has shown he can play the course, at least on the weekdays. Lee Westwood has been among the top three twice since 2010.
But for every Woods there is Zach Johnson. For every Mickelson there is Trevor Immelman.
Johnson was just a normal guy from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who would not seem to fit the profile of a Masters champion. He wasn’t very long, didn’t hit the ball very high and didn’t go for the green in two on any of the par 5s. He won by two shots in 2007.
“I thought I was playing good that week,” Johnson said.
He might have been the only one who realized it. Johnson put the estimate at “0.5 percent” of those who could have pictured him in a green jacket. Then again, it’s like that just about everywhere he goes.
“The favorite is all media-driven, all public-driven,” Johnson said. “There are no surprises out there. There’s probably 70 or 80 guys that you would not be surprised one bit if any of them won.”
Three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo didn’t name them all, but his list kept growing when he talked about 20 players who could win the Masters, all from what he referred to as the second tier and described as “pretty darn good.”
Justin Rose, Ian Poulter and Luke Donald. Brandt Snedeker and Bill Haas. Louis Oosthuizen and Schwartzel.
“Yes, Tiger is the favorite,” Faldo said. “He’s strong. He’s determined. We will see. But he’s going to be chased by a lot of really good players.”
Robert Garrigus considered the last few weeks on the PGA Tour to illustrate how fickle this game can be. Martin Laird had missed the cut in half his tournaments and had yet to crack the top 30 when he closed with a 63 to win the Texas Open. D.A. Points had missed seven cuts in nine tournaments and had not finished in the top 60 when he won the Houston Open.
“I saw the odds on Tiger last night and I thought, ‘Man, you just never know what’s going to happen,”’ Garrigus said. “I saw I was like 200-to-1, and thought if I could bet I might throw a couple of hundred dollars on me.”
Woods is annoyed that seven Masters have come and gone since he last sat in Butler Cabin with his green jacket, though he looks at his record and isn’t worried. He keeps giving himself chances, and he figures one of these years, everything will fall into place.
And he’s still the guy to beat.
“One shot in front of Tiger is not a bad place to be around here,” Ian Poulter said.
It all starts on Thursday, with the biggest concern a weather system that was due to arrive before the weekend and could alter the nature of the course. It has been beautiful all week, the kind of weather that allows officials to set the golf course for birdies or for pars, whatever they choose.
All eyes will be on Woods, though this might require some patience. Woods has broken 70 only once in his 16 years at Augusta as a pro. His average score is 71.9.
“I think everybody has the same thought on Tiger: We’ll worry about that Sunday afternoon,” Snedeker said. “I’m sure he’s going to be up there. I think everybody has a complete idea of knowing he’s probably playing the best golf in the world right now, hands down. If I’m there Sunday afternoon with Tiger Woods at some point ... it’s probably going to be a good week because he’s going to be somewhere close.”