AUGUSTA, April 8 – Tiger Woods enters the 73rd Masters as a clear favorite to capture his 15th major title and fifth green jacket at Augusta National Golf Club, with rivals talking about him in superhuman terms.
Woods has played only three events since returning from an eight-month layoff following left knee surgery, but made himself the man to beat again with a title-winning 16-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole two weeks ago at Bay Hill.
"It certainly is a fun challenge for all of us to try and compete in an era where arguably the best player of all time is playing," two-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson said.
US Amateur champion Danny Lee of New Zealand called his idol Woods a golf hero. Spain’s Sergio Garcia says Woods has the focus to simply will the ball into the hole on those trademark lengthy fist-pumping putts.
"Makes it seem like that," 2006 US Open winner Geoff Ogilvy said. "He has never missed one yet and he doesn’t know how to miss it. He has a pretty solid belief he’s going to make it. It’s pretty impressive to watch actually."
Woods, a 66-time PGA winner who is chasing Jack Nicklaus’ all-time record of 18 major titles, cannot actually move the ball with his mind. Or so he says.
"I don’t know if I have telekinesis," Woods said. "It would sure be nice if some of those shots I’ve hit before to keep them from going into the water. But I haven’t.
"It’s just the moment. Your concentration. Your energy. Everything comes down to one moment. It has been a crescendo."
Some expect Woods and Mickelson, ranked first and second, to battle each other head-to-head for a major title on Sunday. But Ogilvy says Woods would inspire more worry from rivals that he would hold a lead down the stretch.
"Phil would do that less than that just because he’s more human that Tiger," Ogilvy said.
Defending Masters champion Trevor Immelman of South Africa said he has learned the hard way that he cannot always summon up the form that won last year’s green jacket.
"I felt like I could play that way every week and it’s just not possible in any sport – well I guess it is because Tiger does it," Immelman said. "But whether he is human or not is still up for debate."
Woods has missed the past two majors and Ireland’s Padraig Harrington won both, putting him in position to become only the third man to win three majors in a row alongside Woods and Ben Hogan.
"Whether it’s three in a row or another major, it’s just the fact I know I can do it that brings its own level of pressure," Harrington said. "I’m going to have that pressure for the forseeable future."
Harrington resists the notion of a rivalry with Woods.
"I can’t be a rival. I’m always fighting with myself," Harrington said. "It’s a bad mental outlook to be focusing on one other person. The only person you focus on is yourself."
Cold and windy conditions have players pondering a third consecutive Masters where weather makes conditions too difficult for a back-nine victory charge on Sunday.
"You get any kind of wind around this place it’s absolutely amazing," Woods said. "People don’t realize just one gust of wind here or there is a shot. You don’t think it could cost you the tournament Thursday but sometimes it does."
Immelman knows all too well, having nursed home a final-round 75 last year.
"You really only have four or five yards to work with where you have to land your ball. When you get a gusting 60-mph wind with 60-foot pine trees, that gap shrinks and you see scores shoot up," he said.
Woods, whose chip-in at the 16th in his 2005 victory sparked an epic victory roar from the crowd, expects another tough fight to the finish this time.
"The course is so much longer and so much more difficult that you don’t have the birdie opportunities you used to have. It’s just not the same," Woods said.
"You have just got to be very patient and make the putts when you have the opportunities.
"It’s not the same experience. It’s fun in a different way. Your strategy has changed. You don’t go out there looking to shoot super-low rounds because they are not out there anymore.
"The low score still wins. It’s just a different score."