Tiger Woods grouped with K.J. Choi, Matt Kuchar at the Masters
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
AUGUSTA, GA. -- By early afternoon Thursday, the crowds will start to thicken around the first tee at Augusta National. Lunch will be ending, the Masters will be underway, and Tiger Woods will make the short walk from the putting green, through the throngs, to the tee box from which he will begin his return to competitive golf.
In an individual sport, Woods's re-entry into the game following a lurid sex scandal would seem to be a singular endeavor, and the eyes of almost all those surrounding that first tee will surely fall on his broad shoulders. But in the background on that same tee box at 1:42 p.m. will be two men -- K.J. Choi, a 39-year-old from South Korea, and Matt Kuchar, a 31-year-old from Florida via Georgia Tech -- who will undoubtedly be affected by Woods's return, because they have been chosen to play with him in the first two rounds of the Masters.
"The whole scenario, it's going to be cool to have a front-row seat for it," Kuchar said late Tuesday afternoon. "I'll be playing golf, but it'll be great stories to tell at the same time."
The stories, though, likely won't be about his personal success. Long before the revelations of his personal indiscretions, Woods had a reputation for -- directly or indirectly -- having an effect on his playing partners. The possible explanations were endless. He's intimidating. The crowds that follow him are distracting. The media around him is disconcerting. Whatever the reason, there's something there.
"When you play with Tiger," Choi said through an interpreter, "there's a certain -- it's very hard to explain -- but a certain aura or atmosphere that's very different than as opposed to playing with other players,"
It plays out at the Masters. Officials from Augusta Nationals declined Tuesday to outline any guidelines for how they choose the threesomes for the first two rounds, though tournament chairman Billy Payne may address the matter at his Wednesday news conference. But there was, in fact, talk about it among the players because of what a pairing with Woods would mean for their own lives.
"I think most of us in the field thought, 'It's probably going to be me,'" Kuchar said.
In his 13 previous Masters as a professional, Woods's average score in the first two rounds is 71.6 -- or just below par 72. But the scores of his playing partners -- who have ranged from amateurs such as Kuchar, back in 1998, to accomplished international players such as Angel Cabrera, the defending Masters champion -- average out at 74.2, more than five strokes worse over the opening two rounds.
More over, nearly half of Woods's playing partners -- 11 of 24 -- have missed the cut, and though eight players have shot rounds in the 60s, eight have also shot 78 -- or worse.
"It's never easy being paired with Tiger in terms of your whole tournament," three-time major champion Padraig Harrington said Tuesday. "I'm sure the stats will show this out, but guys who are paired with Tiger on Thursday and Friday, . . . they may beat him on Thursday and Friday, but they don't have as good a weekend because that's a lot of energy used up. There's more focus and more stress.
"And there will be questions on Thursday, 'How do you feel about playing with Tiger?' And questions on Friday about, 'How did you feel about playing with Tiger?' And they are all questions that are getting off the path and adding a bit more stress to the week."
Indeed, the best finish of anyone paired with Woods in the first two rounds of the Masters: Paul Casey's tie for 10th in 2007. No one else -- not reigning British Open champ Stewart Cink in 2000 or '09, not Cabrera in '03 or '08, not Robert Allenby nor Darren Clarke nor Sergio García nor Mike Weir -- has broken into the top 10 after opening the tournament playing with Woods.