AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — This is a Masters with so many potential headlines. Padraig Harrington goes for a third straight major title. Phil Mickelson tries to snatch away the No. 1 ranking. A trio of talented teens looks ready to conquer the world before their 20th birthday.
But two names rise above all others.
Tiger Woods and Greg Norman.
Having cast aside any doubts that he’s fully recovered from knee surgery, Woods is heavily favored to capture his fifth green jacket and move another step along in his seemingly unstoppable march toward Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships.
Does he expect to win No. 15 at Augusta National?
“Always,” Woods replied with an icy stare.
Then there’s Norman, who ruled this place B.T. (Before Tiger) but still has one big asterisk on his record – he never actually won the tournament.
Call him the Anti-Tiger.
“I would have loved to have won the golf tournament,” Norman said Tuesday. “But my name seems like it’s spoken about a lot of times when the Masters comes up, which is as much a good thing as a bad thing.”
They’ll both tee it up Thursday, these two players whose dominant eras form a neat alignment in Augusta history. Norman looked like a sure thing for his first Masters title in 1996, taking a six-shot lead to the final round, only to implode with a closing 78. The next year, Woods established a new pecking order with a runaway victory in his first trip to Augusta as a professional.
Now, they come together again – Woods as the still-reigning No. 1 player in the world, Norman as the past-his-prime 54-year-old who played his way into the field for the first time since 2002 with an age-defying performance at last summer’s British Open, where he finished third.
“It’s great to have Greg back here,” Woods said. “He’s been such a fixture at the Masters here for so many years, and he’s been playing well. He played well, obviously, at the British Open last year to get in, but he’s been playing a lot better than he has. I think he’s been playing more, too, which helps. He’s starting to get his feel back for the game.”
Woods never really lost his, even when he sat out eight months recovering from repairs to that bum knee.
In just the third tournament of his comeback, he was back on top. Overcoming a five-shot deficit to start the final round, he won at Bay Hill with a 15-foot birdie on the final hole as darkness was setting in, the type of putt where “everyone is impressed, but no one is surprised,” as Geoff Ogilvy put it so perfectly.
With that little bit of housekeeping out of the way, Woods turned his attention to the year’s first major. Sure, Harrington won the last two major titles of 2008 – impressive, gutty victories at the British Open and PGA Championship – but he didn’t have to worry about Woods at either event.
The world’s top-ranked player was back home in Florida, healing up and chasing around his young daughter after limping to an improbable playoff win in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
Woods is back now, looking as unbeatable as ever.
“It feels the same,” he said. “It feels like a day at any other major championship. Only difference is it’s been a longer duration between majors for me. But the preparation, the feeling that I have right now, it feels the same. I was surprised at how fast I got the feeling. It came back to me.”
Woods broke from his usual routine Tuesday, skipping a chance to get in a practice round on a blustery, unseasonably frigid spring day in Georgia. He planned to play nine holes Wednesday, then start resting up for the opening round.
Norman went out to the course intending to play, but that plan was scuttled after only four holes. He did get in some extra swings at the driving range, worked on his chipping and finished up with a stint on the putting green.
He’s clearly thrilled to be back at Augusta, even though this course has dealt him one heartache after another.
From Jack Nicklaus shooting a 30 on the back nine to pass Norman in 1986, to Larry Mize chipping in from 140 feet to win a playoff the following year, to the coup de grace of collapses in ’96, the Shark has found all sorts of ways to lose at Augusta.
“Some of the bad stuff was self-inflicted and some of it wasn’t,” Norman said. “You always go through negatives and positives. It’s good to talk about the negatives, because you don’t need to keep them inside you. People know that things did happen. Sometimes you play bad, and sometimes you play great and somebody beats you. That’s the game of golf.”
Norman often talks about such things with his wife, former tennis great Chris Evert.
“We like to kind of lament what we have done and what we haven’t done,” he said. “I probably talk about the Masters more than anything else when we have those conversations.”
With Woods nowhere to be found on Tuesday, Norman was the star attraction. His brief appearance on the course had the patrons scurrying to get a glimpse of an aging golfer who still carries himself with the swagger of a rock star.
“Hey, where’s the Shark?”
“Do you know which hole Greg is on?”
“Has anyone seen Norman?”
Never mind his 0-for-22 record at Augusta, or the fact he hasn’t played here in seven years, or all those youngsters – 19-year-old Rory McIlroy, 18-year-old Danny Lee, 17-year-old Ryo Ishikawa – who can easily outdrive him. Even his competitors are pulling for Norman to play well this week.
“This is going to be a better tournament because he’s here,” said Ogilvy, a fellow Aussie. “People forget, but he was the one that everybody went to see before Tiger came along. For that period of time, he was the charismatic guy who got the big crowds and was the exciting one to watch.”
Ohhh, how Norman would love to be in contention – again – come Sunday.
There’s reason to be hopeful. Augusta has always been the kindest major to the geriatric set. Nicklaus won the last of his Masters titles at 46, and he was in the hunt one last time at 58. Norman sure knows his way around the hallowed layout, every little nook and cranny coming back to him as he played a full practice round Monday.
“All of the memories are absolutely, 100 percent there,” said Norman, whose son, Gregory, is caddying for him. “Even though the golf course has been lengthened 420 yards since I last played her, you are still hitting to very much the same place on the greens, the same type of putts.”