Talk at the Masters, as usual, is all about Tiger. Will anyone challenge him this year?

Wednesday April 9th, 2008
Woods has not won at Augusta since 2005.
Fred Vuich/SI

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods is mired in a terrible slump. What else can you say about a guy who didn't win his last tournament?

He wins at Torrey Pines. He wins the WGC Match Play. He wins at Bay Hill. Then he doesn't win at Doral. Uh-oh. Tiger, what's wrong?

Nothing, of course. In fact, if Geoff Ogilvy's chip shot didn't hit the pin and drop on Doral's 13th hole in the final round, he probably would have made double bogey instead of par. That double, and one more holed putt for Tiger on the way in, and Tiger's winning streak could still be going.

Even if Woods didn't win his last time out, his extended streak of excellent play is intact, although streak is probably the wrong word because that somehow implies that it's temporary.

Maybe that's why this year's Masters has had less hype and buildup than any Masters in recent memory. It doesn't seem to be a contest. No other top player seems to be at the top of his game, and talk of a showdown between Tiger and Phil has faded. Let's face it, until you hear otherwise, this Masters is all about Tiger.

So, it was a good thing that Woods dropped by the interview room on Tuesday to share his thoughts, which are usually pithy but unrevealing. You can always find one or two nuggets if you read between the lines, however.

Tiger is pretty confident in his game, and with good reason, but he knows just how fine the line is between winning and coming close. And that line has gotten much finer since Masters officials began lengthening and tightening Augusta National in the 21st century. Making the course tougher has made it tougher for him to win. That is clearly a big reason why Woods won three of his first six Masters as a pro but only one of his last five.

"Generally, this is a golf course where you can make birdies, but the weather conditions didn't allow us to do that last year," Woods said. "Normally, you could shoot under par, and this golf course over the years has been much more forgiving than the U.S. Open.

"You have to putt well here. You can't putt poorly here and win. Now, you have to drive the ball well in order to win here; before you could spray it all over the place and it didn't matter. At nine, you used to hit the ball so far right to give yourself an angle up to those left pins; now with the added trees you can't do that. They have taken that away. It's playing a lot more penal off the tee, but the greens are still the same. The greens are still just as penal."

Woods was asked about the famous remark attributed to Jack Nicklaus in which he predicted that Woods would win as many Masters as Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer combined — 10.

"Well, I felt that he was a little out there by saying that," Woods said, grinning. "I hadn't made a cut yet. But that's the way the golf course was set up then, versus the way it's set up now. Guys with power had just a huge advantage. Obviously he could see that."

Reading between the lines, Jack's prediction would seem less outrageous if club officials hadn't dramatically lengthened, tightened and toughened their course. But they did, so winning 10 Masters is going to prove difficult for Woods. Impossible? That's a word best not associated with Tiger. At 32, he's 4-for-11 as a pro at Augusta National. Assuming he has a 25-year career (or longer, since he's the fittest player in golf), he may still be on schedule for 10.

Let's get back to his slump. He's failed to win one in a row. In Augusta, it's even worse. He didn't win either of the last two Masters. His longest stretch without a win here is three years - 1998 through 2000. If he fails to win this week, he would tie that mark.

Although it's harder for Woods to win at Augusta than it used to be, it's also remarkably hard for him to lose. Last year, for example, Zach Johnson needed a remarkable finish to hold off Woods. He made a crucial birdie putt at 16 and an even more critical up-and-down to save par at 18. Sure, it was an easy chip shot at 18, but there's no such thing as easy when the Masters is on the line. Woods contributed too, kicking away a few shots on 17 and 18 the first few days, strokes that came back to haunt him.

Tiger is always close, it seems, especially since his refined swing has taken hold over the last 10 months. That's why it has been a quiet early season leading up to the Masters. Woods may be playing the best golf of his career in what may be the prime of his career. Like a recession, we won't know that for sure until after the fact, but that's the suspicion.

One thing you can count on this week — four days of Tiger. You can't concede him a victory, but you can concede that he is going to figure in the outcome. He is simply that good.

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