AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods was met by his PR man and his caddie as he nosed his black Mercedes SUV into the parking lot behind the old driving range at Augusta National the other day. He piled out wearing a peach-colored shirt apropos of the Peachtree State, gave his guys their marching orders, and walked toward the clubhouse with publicist Glenn Greenspan. Woods was scarcely out of sight when two green-shirted club employees began spraying his SUV with pressurized hoses in case Woods's ride had picked up any pollen or, worse, a ripe, juicy flying insect.
Woods has established dominion over a lot of variables as he takes the last few waggles before the 77th Masters, having rediscovered his putting stroke while winning three times to reclaim the No. 1 ranking. You can sense people pulling for him to win his 15th major, his first since the 2008 U.S. Open, and get on with his quest to catch and surpass all-time leader Jack Nicklaus (18). And yes, those "people" include the press, some of whom are so desperate to see golf on the front page again they sound ready to sprinkle Tiger's ball with unicorn kisses, pack him a sack lunch (crust lovingly removed) and send him out the door with a hug.
But as much as we try to install Woods as the heavy favorite, or at least the favorite, it would be more accurate to say is he is one of the favorites, and we shouldn't be surprised if that designation means nothing by early evening Sunday. There are simply too many other players who could win, and too many things that could go wrong. That's why fortune hasn't favored the favorites at Augusta.
Phil Mickelson came to the 2011 Masters having just shot 63-65 to win the Shell Houston Open, but as much as everyone tried to give him the tournament — Johnny Miller was among those who called it before it began — Phil couldn't get anything going and tied for 27th. Charl Schwartzel? He was not a favorite.
Rory McIlroy and Woods, the stars of the 2012 Florida Swing, were co-favorites last year, but they tied for 40th. Bubba Watson? He was not a favorite.
Don't believe the next guy who tells you Augusta National is one of those courses where Woods can win just by showing his ID on the first tee. It isn't that type of track for anyone, not even someone with Tiger's prodigious golf IQ. He's been "the" or "a" favorite for most of the last seven Masters, and he hasn't won.
Rich Beem, the 2002 PGA Championship winner and an honorary invitee here this week, doesn't agree that this is Woods's Masters to lose. In fact Beem has only one American in his Masters pool and it's not Woods but the even longer-hitting Dustin Johnson, who is said to be driving the ball on a string this week. Yes, Woods was the greatest putter the game has ever seen, Beem says, but he asks an important hypothetical question: "What if he doesn't putt well this week?"
True enough, it's one thing to "roll the rock," as Tiger might put it, at Torrey Pines, Doral and Bay Hill — Woods's results on those courses alone make up a Hall of Fame career. It's quite another to tame the glass greens at Augusta, and as much as you have to love his stroke in '13, past performance doesn't guarantee future results. The last time Woods won three times before the Masters, a decade ago, he cruised up Magnolia Lane with great fanfare — and tied for 15th.
"You have to make a lot of putts," said Woods, who played his final practice round with Keegan Bradley and Fred Couples early Wednesday.
What if Woods starts spraying his tee shots? The long game is his biggest weakness, just as it has been for much of the last 10-plus years. He started the 2012 Masters with an ugly hook off the first tee (and still saved par), and ranks 147th on Tour in driving accuracy in 2013. If you want to know how important it is to have a fairly reliable, relatively straight, 280-yard-plus tee shot in your bag at Augusta, just look how much time Mickelson has spent this week talking up his new 3-wood that's really a driver (or driver that's really a 3-wood).
Mickelson was asked why it's so hard to repeat as Masters champion, and his answer should be required reading for anyone betting the house on Woods.
"I don't know if it's repeating [that's so hard]," Mickelson said. "It's just winning the Masters. It's a tough tournament to win because we want it so bad."
Tiger wants it bad. The people in the game want it for him. There was a telling moment in Woods's press conference when he was asked about winning championships at different stages of his career, and what it would mean to win another Sunday. He started to say he was looking forward to it but realized how that would sound and stopped himself just in time. He backed up and started over.
"That's something that I'm certainly looking forward to the opportunity to do this week," he said, an awkward bit of phrasing that nonetheless spared him a rare media misstep. Woods is far too smart to predict a winner at Augusta.
Yes, he has reestablished himself as the best player, he is putting great, and he's used to high expectations. He was supposed to win at Torrey, Doral and Bay Hill, and he did. He's won six times in 54 weeks. He's back. But his golf ball won't care about any of that when he tees off with Luke Donald and Scott Piercy at 10:45 a.m. Thursday. Nor will fellow favorites Bradley, Dustin Johnson, McIlroy, Mickelson, Justin Rose, Schwartzel, Brandt Snedeker or Lee Westwood.
Nicklaus was asked again this week about Woods beating his record, and again Nicklaus said, "Still, he's got to go do it." Feel free to make that your Wednesday headline for the 2013 Masters, courtesy of a guy who would know.