Thursday, January 05, 2012

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- After the press conference bombshell that wasn't -- so many issues, so little time -- the Masters tournament itself is loaded with intriguing storylines, starting, of course, with Tiger Woods.

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Can he win after stumbling through perhaps the worst five months of his life, in which he scarcely touched a club for the first three? Phil Mickelson, who revealed that he and Woods lunched together before their epic final round at last year's Masters — "We made a few jokes and laughed and giggled a little bit and I knew that it was going to be a fun day," Lefty said — sounded surprised to hear there was any doubt. "Well, that's a crazy question to ask, can he win," Mickelson said. "He showed that he can win in much worse condition in the 2008 U.S. Open."

Quipped Jack Nicklaus, "I don't think he's here for his health."

Woods has won the Masters four times, but not since 2005. He has vowed not to run "as hot" on the course, curtailing his club chucking and eliminating his F-bombs, but you wonder if G-rated Tiger can be as ruthlessly effective as the old one. Perhaps he will channel the Fantastic Mr. Fox next time he flubs a tee shot: "Cuss! You mother-cussing cuss-sucker! Cuss. Cuss! {Pause.} Nice shot, K.J.!" We're not sure what the cuss to make of Woods, especially not the new, cooler-running Woods, or even if such an animal is indeed in him.

At least the weather is hotter this year, nearing 90 degrees, although it's supposed to dip back into the 70s after late-afternoon showers and thunderstorms Thursday. This is the first Masters to offer a 3-D broadcast, but be warned: The golf in Group 10, with long-bombers Dustin Johnson and Alvaro Quiros, may still look one-dimensional. But those are just the most obvious storylines.

The least obvious might be Ricky Barnes, who by virtue of his T2 finish at last summer's U.S. Open returns to the Masters for the first time since he finished 21st and took low amateur honors in 2003. The '02 U.S. Amateur champ was in a chipper mood after playing a practice round with Tom Watson, mingling for close to an hour with friends and strangers and meeting, among others, "Weekly Top 40" radio host Rick Dees. "I shook Paul Azinger's hand and he won the next week," Dees gushed. "I shook Fred Couples's hand and he won the next week ..."

Yes, you heard it here first: Ricky Barnes, your 2010 Masters champion.

Couples, 50, could contend for his first Masters title in 18 years. He has won three of his first four starts on the senior circuit — a feat not even Hale Irwin managed — and is putting as well as ever. He's still long off the tee and savors Augusta like a warm bath, having tied Gary Player's record for most consecutive cuts made (23, 1983-2007). Then again, Couples's comfort owes partly to his kicks, which look a little like skateboard sneakers, which he wears with no socks. Even as he played Monday with Woods, you could hear the talk of Freddy's Eccos reverberating through the pines.

Oldies and Augusta go way back — Nicklaus was 58 when he tied for sixth in 1998 — but you don't have to tax your memory too much to recall that Kenny Perry was almost 49 when he lost a playoff to Angel Cabrera last year. Said Mickelson, who edged Couples in 2006, "I think Fred's got an incredible chance to win this week." Perry himself looks less credible as a contender. He hasn't had a top-30 finish on Tour since a T6 at the season-opening SBS Championship at Kapalua.

Ernie Els, the Tour's only two-time winner in 2010, is still flying under the radar thanks partly to the hysteria over Woods and partly to the club neglecting to invite him in for a pre-tournament press conference. Els, who finished second in 2000 and '04, has been switching between caddies Ricci Roberts — who was on the bag for wins at Doral and Bay Hill — and NHL veteran Dan Quinn, who gets the bag this week. It'll be Quinn's first Masters, and he'll also get the PGA Championship in August. Roberts, who has worked for Els for almost two decades, will be on the bag for the U.S. and British Opens. A Masters victory would be the third leg of the career Grand Slam for Els, who's won the U.S. Open twice and the British Open once. He is one of four current players stuck on three majors, and a green jacket would put the Big Easy ahead of Mickelson, Padraig Harrington and Vijay Singh — unthinkable three years ago, when Els slumped after a knee injury and as he and wife Liezl tried to determine how best to care for their autistic son Ben.

Ernie's fellow South African Retief Goosen has seven top-25 finishes, including two seconds, in 11 Masters starts. Having finished fourth at the Sony Open in Hawaii, T5 at the WGC-Accenture Match Play (where he beat Els), fifth in Tampa and T4 at Bay Hill, Goosen is quietly putting together one of his best seasons in years. And Charl Schwartzel, 25, who battled Els at Doral and leads the Euro Tour's Race to Dubai, may end up winning more than any South African since Gary Player.

Still, Europe's stars — seeking a first Masters W since Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain in 1999 — have been even more prominent in 2010, due in part to the all-England final at the WGC-Accenture Match Play, when Ian Poulter beat Paul Casey. Lee Westwood has just one top-10 finish in 10 Masters starts, but came tantalizingly close to winning the 2008 U.S. Open and last year's British Open. He took money from Poulter in a practice round Tuesday, while Casey, the third member of the group, looked on in amusement. "Westy's playing very well — they were both making birdies," said Casey, who pronounced himself fit enough for action after pulling out of last week's Shell Houston Open with a sore left shoulder. "They both would have beaten me."

Padraig Harrington, fifth at Augusta in 2002 and '08, has shown flashes of form this season, but a better Irish story might be Graeme "G-Mac" McDowell, who finished 17th in just his second Masters last year. The Irishman was 55th in the World Ranking when he learned last December that he would be going to the Chevron World Challenge after host Tiger Woods withdrew post-accident. As it happened, 2009 was the first year the Chevron would be awarding world ranking points, and McDowell, the 54-hole co-leader, shot a final-round 70 to finish second, cracking the top 50 (to No. 38) and assuring himself a berth in this week's Masters. "Last year [at Augusta] was a big breakthrough for me," said McDowell, who played 36 holes at Augusta last Friday. "I really got my head around the golf course."

David Duval did that a decade ago, finishing second here in 1998 and 2001. The former No. 1 will be playing his 11th Masters but his first since '06, thanks to a swoon to rival that of Ian Baker Finch, who garaged his clubs in favor of broadcasting. Duval, though, never gave up, and returns this week thanks to his T2 finish at the U.S. Open. "I guess the fact that I'm playing, the answer is, no, I never got to hate it," Duval said. "If I hated it, I would have stopped doing it. Doesn't make much sense to do something that you don't like to do. Gets more fun as you start to hit the golf ball better and you start to do better things, and that starts to stoke the fire, I guess."

Anthony Kim, who made a Masters-record 11 birdies in round two last year, is doing good things, having won in Houston last weekend. But can his injured thumb hold up for one more week before surgery? He's grouped with Els and Japanese sensation Ryo Ishikawa. Is it too early for Ishikawa to win? Or Rory McIlroy? And at 16, British Amateur champion Matteo Manassero of Italy will become the youngest Masters contestant ever.

Then there's Mickelson, still the game's biggest enigma. Coming off season-ending victories at the Tour Championship and HSBC Champions in Shanghai in '09, he was on the verge of a huge 2010, or so it seemed. But while his wife Amy and mother Mary continue to undergo treatment for breast cancer, Mickelson has failed to contend in seven Tour starts, with just one top-10, at the AT&T. More than once he has arrived at tournaments on Wednesday night, skipping practice rounds. Augusta, though, transforms him. Last we saw Phil, playing with Woods in the final round in '09, he fired a record-tying 30 on the front nine only to splash his tee shot on 12 and finish fifth. He's finished in the top 10 in all but five of his 17 Masters starts.

"The reason why I've had success in the past [at Augusta National] is there are places where you can miss it and still make [par or birdie] on every hole," Mickelson said. "There are places where you can still get up-and-down and salvage par. So I don't feel like I have to have my perfect game, ball-striking, to be able to go around this course and shoot in the 60s, and I think that's why I enter this tournament with a lot less stress."

The rest of us enter it with more interest and intrigue than any time in recent memory.

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