Tiger Woods's Rivals, Not Awed by His Return to Major Competition at the Masters

The Washington Post's Barry Svrluga describes the mood, course changes, and players to watch as the first round of the Masters starts Thursday at Augusta National.Audio by washingtonpost.com
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 9, 2009

AUGUSTA, Ga., April 8 -- Tiger Woods can do nothing in golf without causing shifts, be they small or seismic, in the way others feel about him, about the landscape of their sport and, perhaps, even about themselves. He was absent from two majors last year, propped up on his Orlando couch, ice around his surgically repaired left knee, watching on television as others pursued titles he would have liked for himself. This is what he begat, even while he was away.

"I realize, actually, I can win majors within my own control," Padraig Harrington said this week. "I know if I prepare right and play right and go out and play my golf, it's possible for me to win -- and to be in control of me winning."

Has the rest of the world wrested control from the man who controls the sport? Harrington won the British Open and the PGA Championship while Woods healed, the only man other than Tiger to win back-to-back majors in the same year since Woods turned pro. But the Irishman isn't the only player who arrived this week at Augusta National Golf Club for the Masters with a legitimate claim that Woods could be out of mind even as he is clearly back in sight.

Yes, Woods has won 14 majors, beginning with his first right here in 1997. The rest of humanity has taken 34, among 24 different men. But there is a sense that any vulnerability in Woods -- however slight, however manufactured in the minds of others -- must be seized upon by the remaining elite players not only this week, but for however long it lasts.

"This," Harrington said, "is an opportunity."

For Harrington, it's an opportunity at a third straight major, an accomplishment matched only by Ben Hogan and -- you guessed it -- Woods. But it is, too, an opportunity for Phil Mickelson, who joins Harrington and Vijay Singh as the only players other than Woods to take three major titles in the dozen years since Woods won his first. It is an opportunity for Geoff Ogilvy, who has a U.S. Open title in his bag and a lofty ranking of fourth in the world on his résumé. The idea: If Woods needs even a few moments to get back in major championship form, the rest must pounce, because they fully understand the ramifications of allowing him to hang around as he pulls himself into top form.

"You know coming down the last few holes that he is not going to go away, and he is going to do good stuff the closer you get to the end," said Ogilvy, who benefited from Mickelson's sloppy play on the 72nd hole at Winged Foot in the 2006 U.S. Open and has developed into a threat to win virtually any major he enters. "That's the intimidating thing. You know if you let him have that putt on the last hole, or you let him have a chance, he is going to beat you. Whereas, you don't know that about anybody else."

Or, as defending champion Trevor Immelman put it: "Whether he's human or not is still up for debate."

Woods showed his knee is no longer bothersome when he won two weeks ago in Orlando, sinking precisely the kind of putt the rest of the field -- make that the rest of the world -- knows he is going to make on the final hole. But major championships are different. Even at the last two Masters, when Woods was ostensibly healthy -- he revealed only after his enthralling, 91-hole victory in the U.S. Open last year that his leg had troubled him for years -- Woods was slightly off his game, largely because of inconsistent putting, he said. Because of that rarity, relatively nameless, faceless players -- Zach Johnson of Iowa in 2007, Immelman of South Africa in 2008 -- stepped in to take titles Woods might have won. Instead, he finished second both times.

"If you just look at the landscape of the tour in '96, when I came out here, versus in 2009, there are a lot more guys with a chance to win each and every week," Woods said. "And that's going to be the case as time goes on. The fields are getting deeper. The equipment [and] technology, guys' margins of mis-hits are not going as far off-line. The game is getting closer and closer together. It just makes it harder to win."

In a major, though, that could be mere lip service, some polite Tiger talk before the field tees it up against him. Woods is the only man to win four straight professional majors -- the 2000 U.S. Open, British Open and PGA and the 2001 Masters -- an opportunity that, at least for the next few days, still lays out there for Harrington. Asked if such a run at the Grand Slam was possible for him this year, given the knee and the presumably stronger field, Woods was quick and concise.

"I know I can do it," he said. "I've done it."

That is the kind of attitude Harrington and Mickelson have about an individual major title now. And their sense of the opportunity at hand is almost palpable.

"These [seasons] are an important part of my career now, these next five years," Mickelson said. He turns 39 in June. The chances to win, whether Woods is around or not, will eventually dwindle.

"I feel like I'll be able to, in the next five years, achieve levels of play that I haven't achieved earlier in my career," Mickelson said. "I don't want there to be any uncertainties. I want to continue down this path and see how far I can go."

How far Mickelson goes -- how far any of them go, really -- will be determined, at least in part, by the extent of Woods's recovery and his own ability to refine his game. Because he hasn't competed in a major in nine months, Woods was asked whether this Masters, his 15th, seems any different. "It feels the same," he said.

If that's the case, the window for the handful of other players who believe they control their own ability to win majors may be closing, and fast.

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