Van Sickle: Do you guys think Augusta National has finally been Tiger-proofed, based on the difficult conditions the last two years and mildly surprising winners Zach Johnson and Trevor Immelman?
Hack: It's not Tiger-proofed, it's excitement-proofed. Guys like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson are pretty careful about criticizing the Masters, but even they are making more noise than they used to about the course. They don't like it very much. It's become a point A to point B golf course. It's boring.
Anonymous Pro: The course has played so long the last few years, even the long hitters can't take advantage of the par-5s, which Tiger and Phil always used to do. When that happens, it becomes more of a test from 100 yards. The par-3s are brutal, and everybody lays up on the par-5s, so it's the guy who wedges it the best and putts the best who wins. That's not what built the legends of the Masters.
Van Sickle: The course was so difficult the last two years, it was an equalizer. You made birdies as much by accident as by skill.
Bamberger: The new Augusta National works against Tiger because there's less of an intimidation factor. Like Nicklaus or Palmer in their days, Tiger can put up a 31 on the back nine on Sunday afternoon when nobody else can. When 31 isn't in the cards, that works against him.
Van Sickle: By intimidation, you mean the roars that Tiger or Jack create by shooting 31 on the back nine?
Shipnuck: I agree with Michael, the Masters is more of a defensive tournament now. It's more difficult for Tiger to separate himself. It's become boring the first three rounds. They want to protect par at the outset, then they try to make the course more scorable on Sunday, but it's too late. They've already sucked the life out of the tournament.
Garrity: The more they restore number 7 to the way it used to be, which was just a great short par-4, the better I'll like it. They turned that into a hole at Firestone.
Bamberger: Geoff Ogilvy made a similar point about the 14th, that the hole was tougher when it was shorter because you had to play it as a dogleg. Now it simply plays as a straightaway hole with a sloping fairway.
Shipnuck: Apparently they've extended the tee box way up on number 7 so they can play it 40 to 50 yards shorter if they want. Maybe that's their plan make the tee boxes longer so they can adjust the lengths of the holes.
Van Sickle: Alan said it earlier: They're trying to protect par. When did the green jackets turn into blue jackets? The USGA blue coats used to be the only ones worried about anyone shooting 275 and embarrassing Shinnecock or Winged Foot. When Tiger shot the record in '97, Masters officials only cared about how he did it by hitting driver-wedge on just about every hole, which was alarming. These days it would embarrass Hootie Johnson, the former chairman, if all the trees he planted got ripped out, but Billy Payne ought to consider it.
Hack: One tree at a time, baby. One tree at a time.
Shipnuck: It all comes down to two holes, 13 and 15. Those holes define excitement at the Masters, and they're automatic layups for a lot of guys. Move up the tees and bring back eagles on those holes, which still would give up bogeys and doubles. Take out the new trees, lose the rough, speed up the fairways and turn the course into a racetrack. Bobby Jones had a vision of it as a links in a parkland setting.
Bamberger: Not even a parkland setting, Alan. In the '80s when you stepped out of the clubhouse, you felt as if you were looking at a huge playing field, not like it is now. I've heard Ben Crenshaw say that you don't get that unique feeling anymore that this is a strange, special course. Those corridors of trees are like Oak Hill or Winged Foot.
THE PADDY SLAM
Van Sickle: We've got a guy going for three straight major victories, and nobody is talking about him. It's even crazier that Padraig Harrington has won two majors in a row and isn't ranked No. 2 in the world.
Anonymous Pro: Padraig always comes in under the radar. There's nothing flashy about his game. Royal Birkdale and Oakland Hills were both kind of survival of the fittest. Augusta requires a short game unlike anywhere else, and Padraig doesn't hit a lot of flops and pitches and isn't as imaginative around the greens as Tiger and Phil. Padraig looks very rigid in his technique; he simply doesn't look like a feel player to me, and feel players win at Augusta.
Shipnuck: When Phil has a train wreck and plays bad, it's fun. It's part of his charm. Harrington is just so relentlessly steady. He'll go to Augusta with a very low profile, which suits him fine. There's nothing not to like about him, but Padraig has never captured the imagination of the American public.
Garrity: The problem is, he won his two majors in a row in only one month. And while Tiger was absent.
Hack: Fair or unfair, it's like the Houston Rockets winning back-to-back NBA titles while Michael Jordan was retired. Those trophies look the same on Padraig's mantel, but in the public's eye maybe it wasn't the same because Tiger was missing.
Shipnuck: I've been saying for a long time that Harrington is the Hakeem Olajuwon of golf.
Van Sickle: If you want to win two majors and stay anonymous in the U.S., you win the British Open and the PGA. Nobody notices. You have to win the tournaments the American public watches, and that means the Masters and the U.S. Open. If Padraig wins this Masters, for the rest of his life he won't be off the radar.
Hack: I wouldn't have touched Phil Mickelson two months ago, but the way he won in Los Angeles and Doral, he has to be the favorite for Augusta. I'd ride that horse.
Shipnuck: Phil is back, definitely. He has that look about him. The guy has been kind of lost since Winged Foot [in 2006], but for three years there he was in contention in just about every major. He's the one guy who has the game, the force and the personality. He's the only bona fide rival for Tiger out there, not Anthony Kim or Rory McIlroy or Ryo Ishikawa or some other young gun. Look, Phil has a three- to five-year window. He knows that, we all know that. He's doing everything he can to get back to where he was and have a triumphant final act to his career. He is energized.
Bamberger: The thing that had his caddie, Jim Mackay, so excited was that approach shot into Doral's last hole on Sunday. Phil couldn't hit his bread-and-butter draw in there. He played a fade into a back-left pin, a shot that Butch Harmon has wanted him to use, and he executed it beautifully. As Jim said, that's a shot he needs at Augusta. To pull that off under the gun is a huge boost for confidence.
Anonymous Pro: Phil's iron play and putting are fantastic, but he's still driving it poorly. All the best drives I saw him hit at Doral were with three-woods. I'm surprised that Butch hasn't tightened up Phil's driver backswing. It's loose, and so is his lower body, which is why he's driving it erratically. Phil's problem is he's enamored with distance. He doesn't realize that taking 10 yards off his tee ball would help him so much.
Van Sickle: It's true. He digs the long ball.
Anonymous Pro: I saw Phil pound a big, looping high draw off the 12th tee at Doral. He can hit it 330 with a cut, so why try to hit it 350 with a draw? The best drivers hit the ball one way either they cut it or hit it straight. Like Tiger. If Tiger has to draw it, he hits his three-wood. Being aggressive is Phil's nature. You can't change that. The driver is still the weak link in his bag, but there's plenty of room at Augusta even with the trees. And 36 wins? The guy is phenomenal.
Van Sickle: It's interesting how Geoff Ogilvy looks like one of the two or three best players in the world whenever he wins.
Bamberger: Inasmuch as he played one of the most difficult courses in the history of the U.S. Open so well at Winged Foot, I don't see how he can't be considered one of the favorites at the Masters.
Shipnuck: He's had some crazy blowups at Augusta two balls into the pond at 15 and a 9 in '07. Hopefully, he's learned from that.
Bamberger: I think he did that out of respect for Norman.
Anonymous Pro: Geoff makes it look so easy. He hits his irons super high, he's a great driver of the ball and a terrific putter. It's a great combination. Plus, he seems so nonchalant. He looks as if he can't decide whether to order a turkey sub or hit a golf shot.
Van Sickle: Which is amazing for a guy who was once a minivolcano.
Anonymous Pro: The Aussie to watch this year isn't Norman, it's Ogilvy. I think he's going to win, to be honest.
Van Sickle: Greg Norman played his way back into the Masters for the first time since 2002 with a remarkable British Open performance. Is his return a big deal or mostly ceremonial?
Anonymous Pro: It would've been really cool if he was coming back as the Open champion. I wish he had won. I've heard him say he's basically just hoping to make the cut at the Masters. That says it all. He went away sooner than everyone wanted, but he realizes this is probably his last time around Augusta.
Shipnuck: Greg is a great Thursday story. I'll be surprised if he gets into contention. He couldn't get it done in Augusta when he was the best in the world. He's a middle-aged, part-time golfer now. I don't see it happening.
Garrity: I spent some time with Greg and Chris Evert for a story recently. He's worked so hard to prepare for this physically. He's been doing a strong workout routine. The opportunity to go back clearly means a lot. Even if it's ceremonial, he wants to play like the Shark.
Bamberger: I think it's supercool for him to come back with Chrissie to the place where he made his reputation. I hate this word, but this is great closure for Greg. He earned his way back, and that is very cool.
Van Sickle: This is the first major that Tiger Woods will play in almost 10 months. If those goose bumps aren't too distracting, what does this Masters look like for Tiger, apparently fully recovered from serious knee surgery?
Anonymous Pro: He'll be fine. I don't think his knee is an issue. He simply needs some competitive golf. He made zero putts at Doral and still finished in the top 10. I'm sure he'll do a flyby in Augusta and be ready.
Bamberger: I wonder if these ordinary Tour events like Doral and Bay Hill are going to become harder and harder for Tiger to get excited about. Yet he needs these other events to get into shape to play the majors.
Shipnuck: Given the rust, his play at Doral was amazing. He was missing his scoring touch, but you looked up and he was in the top 10. Phil [Mickelson] took a few months off and could barely break 80 at first. Tiger is definitely on schedule. I have no doubt that he'll be as good or better than he was before the surgery, it's just a matter of how long it takes. He will contend on the new Augusta National, but he's not quite the favorite he was on the old Augusta National. Before, it was Tiger and everybody else. This year he's one of six or seven co-favorites. But that may not last long. He's still Tiger.
Hack: Even with the course changes Tiger is going to be the favorite at Augusta for the next decade. Next week he'll finish top three for sure. His putter has been cold the last two years. If he putts like he did at Bay Hill, those runner-up finishes will be three-shot wins, easy.
Garrity: As great a player as Tiger is, he's always had little flaws or technical issues, whether it was Butch Harmon's swing or Hank Haney's. The real measure of Tiger is that he's so able to control the club face and manufacture shots despite a swing flaw or an unstable knee. He can still win and is the favorite to win anywhere, under any circumstance. His balance looks better than it's been in years, surely because of his knee. He also doesn't look as if he's trying to crush every shot, which I like. I'd be very bullish on Tiger.
Anonymous Pro: Tiger says he hasn't changed his swing, but it looks lower than it ever has, flatter on the downswing, almost as if he's trying to save some bad swings with his right shoulder by trying to get the club through. He's on plane, just flat. His left knee isn't straightening, it's almost giving, which is why he's losing shots to the right. I'm sure his knee is fine, but mentally, after years of knee issues, he may not be ready to go at it the way he used to. But he knows his swing. He'll figure it out. He always does.
AND THE WINNER IS ...
Van Sickle: This is the part where we predict the Masters champion. I don't recall any of us picking Trevor Immelman last year. Given that our track record is about the same as Jim Cramer's, who do you like?
Shipnuck: I've been backing Ogilvy all year, but I also like Harrington. He has a game plan for Augusta. He's not playing for top 10, he's playing to win, and he's going to be aggressive. I'll take him and Ogilvy in a playoff.
Hack: I still like Phil.
Garrity: You realize that I'm retired and I'm only here as a senior consultant. If I have to pick somebody, I'll go with Mickelson. Maybe the Masters is to Mickelson what the British was to Watson, and he'll be a Hall of Famer who wins four or five Masters, one or two PGAs and nothing else.
Van Sickle: Tiger has never gone four years without winning a Masters. This would be the fourth year. Even in an off-year, he finishes second. At his press conference [at the Match Play] in Tucson, I have never seen him more at ease or happier with his life. I think that matters, maybe a lot. It has always been a bad idea to bet against Tiger. It still is. I'll go with the chalk.
Bamberger: I'm picking Dustin Johnson, the guy who won at Pebble Beach. He's a very good golfer. He looks like a beautiful lag putter. Possibly, he's a guy who doesn't get rattled. He has more of a jock mentality, like a screw-you, get-out-of-my-way, I'm-going-to-win-this-thing.
Van Sickle: He'd be the first Masters champ who can dunk a basketball, although if there was money on the line, I wouldn't have put it past the original Slammer, Sam Snead.
Bamberger: I understand Gene Sarazen could dunk.
Garrity: I'll ask him the next time I see him.