AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods said he has lost money on the golf course to veteran pitcher John Smoltz, and Phil Mickelson insisted he's playing some of the best golf of his life, but Greg Norman gave the best answers in a long procession of press conferences at the media pavilion at Augusta National on Tuesday.
Norman, who at 54 will be making his first Masters start since 2002, compared his legacy of Masters heartache to that of his wife, the tennis player Chris Evert.
"She went 13 times getting beat by Martina [Navratilova]," Norman said. "I went 22 times without winning the Masters. So I think I'm a bit ahead of her on that one."
The remark drew one of the bigger laughs of the day, which only made sense. As with the game of golf itself, when it comes to press conferences, practice makes perfect.
Mickelson, who played a chilly practice round with collegiate star Drew Kittleson on Tuesday, had several snappy rebuttals when questions weren't asked quite right, or the real meaning was painfully transparent.
Question: "You've played here 17 years now. Do you ever find yourself going, 'Back in my day when this hole used to be like this ...' Do you find yourself in that situation trying to help the youngster along?"
Mickelson: "If you're asking me if I feel old ..."
The audience of reporters laughed. (Mickelson will turn 39 in June.) Later in his press conference, Mickelson playfully scolded a reporter for an awkward segue:
Question: "When you come to this place, you've always done so very well here. Is there something about this course and the way it sets up that suits your eye? And as an addendum to that, when you are working with Butch and you are working with Dave Pelz, do they mesh in terms of information you receive?"
Mickelson: "I don't see how that's an addendum to your first question (laughter)."
Woods got off a good line when, in a reference to the reporters' layered attire, he said, "This looks more like a British Open press conference than it does a Masters press conference." He perked up several ears when he revealed that he had lost money to the longtime Atlanta Braves (and now Boston Red Sox) pitcher Smoltz.
"I remember the time that I shot 63 and lost money (laughter)," Woods said. "He shot 66 that day. The guy can play."
The high point of Woods's time at the dais came when he was asked to explain all the must-make putts that he seems to will into the hole.
"I don't know if I have telekinesis," he said, "but it sure would be nice, [to use on] some of those shots I've hit before to keep them from going into the water. But that hasn't happened."
Woods gave a pat answer when asked if he could give advice to Steve Wilson, a 39-year-old gas station owner who will make his first Masters start Thursday. But a follow-up question got the world's No. 1 player laughing, and elicited a better response.
Question: "Following up on the Steve Wilson question, he owns gas stations and you could probably buy the oil companies (laughter). Can you in any way relate to a guy like that coming up here, his life dream to play in the tournament?"
Woods let down his guard and gave a thoughtful reply about his recollections from his first Masters, which came 15 years ago, when he was 19.
Those who left Woods's press conference early missed the best line of the day, which belonged to club member Rob Johnston, who sat next to Woods to moderate. Longtime Atlanta newspaperman Furman Bisher tried to catch Johnston flat-footed. "This is for Rob," he said. "How is it you always seem to draw the interview with Tiger?"
Johnson deadpanned: "I cannot comment on club policy."
The room, even Woods, broke up with laughter.
As for actual knowledge learned from the seemingly unending slate of "pressers," here's my list:
• Woods said he hasn't won here since 2005 because his putting hasn't been consistent enough. He didn't play any holes Tuesday because, "I'm really not going to learn a whole lot; [these are] conditions we are not going to face all week."
• Mickelson did play Tuesday, and this week re-upped his endorsement deal with Callaway for another five years. He's written off his missed cut in Houston last week. "I feel like right now I'm playing some of the best golf that I've ever played," he said.
• Danny Lee, the U.S. Amateur champion, seems destined to sign with IMG when he turns pro next week, if we can read the tea leaves from the fact that a prominent IMG agent sat in the front row of his press conference.
Lee doesn't speak very good English, and it gets worse when he gets nervous, which he said he was. He'll use a local caddie here. He said the Crow's Nest, where he's staying, is smaller than he anticipated, but he's pleased to be sleeping where Woods did.
"That might help me playing better," Lee said.
• Camilo Villegas drew one of the smaller audiences of the day, a crowd of 19 people that included the stenographer, Villegas's agent, two guys in green jackets (one of them the moderator) and Villegas himself.
• Most predictable cliche was a tie between Villegas and Lee — you might not be surprised to learn both are taking it one shot at a time this week. Woods finished a close second for saying of the outpouring of attention he receives: "It is what it is."