-- Tiger Woods took the diplomatic approach today, pleasantly tiptoeing around a series of questions concerning his stance on the controversy that has swirled around all-male Augusta National.

"Should [women] be or become members? Yes," he said. "But I don't really have a vote in how they run the golf course and this club."

When asked whether professional athletes of his stature should speak out on social or political issues, he said, "It's up to each individual. Certain athletes have their causes, and they're very outspoken, and others aren't. That's their prerogative. Sometimes just because a person is in the limelight, people have had this need for them to have a voice and an opinion and where you stand. Some people choose not to."

Woods is choosing to stay away from any sort of soapbox this week at the Masters, where he is the heavy favorite to win his fourth title since 1997 and an unprecedented three in a row.

In a mid-afternoon news conference today, Woods did little to dispel the notion that he should be the overwhelming choice to win his ninth major title -- getting him halfway toward Jack Nicklaus's 18 professional majors. He said he's healthy, has regained most of the weight he lost during a bout of food poisoning three weeks ago and has been practicing diligently back home in Orlando to fine-tune his game for a possible fourth victory in his six starts this season.

The more it rained today -- and another half-inch drenched the course for a second straight day -- the more Woods's chances of winning the 67th Masters improve on a course that was playing extremely long in the first practice round of the week. The fact that he also has the added incentive to reach territory no golfer has ever occupied merely added to what some may see as his aura of invincibility.

"I think it would be huge to win three [straight] Masters," he said. "No one's ever done it before. And I've been able to do certain things in golf that no one has ever done before. If you're ever in that position, you want to take advantage of it because it doesn't happen all the time."

The conditions of no rolling soft fairways and receptive slow greens "certainly favors someone who is hitting the ball high, long and straight," he said. "This week you've got to keep the ball in the fairway, but you've got to get it out there. . . . The greens right now . . . still have some speed to them. Downhill putts are pretty quick, a little dicey at times. . . . You know, it's rained every single event I've played in this year. Maybe I shouldn't play, huh?"

Of course, that isn't going to happen, not for a golfer who says: "I love playing in tough conditions. It doesn't mean you'll always play well, but I enjoy that challenge, I certainly do. You go out there, suck it up and you play."

Woods, 27, will be playing in his ninth Masters. He came here for the first time as a 16-year-old amateur in 1995, and from the moment he walked onto the premises and stepped up to the first tee, he said today, "I never felt intimidated by it.

"At the time, I could really drive it a long way, and there was absolutely no rough out there. So for me, my biggest weakness was driving at the time. I could hit it for miles, but I didn't know where it was going. Here, it lent itself to that. The only thing I found hard at the time was my distance control. I wasn't very good at it. I knew then if I could bomb it down there as far as I could get it, I figured I could shake a sand wedge onto the green."

The course has changed in look and length since the day Woods finished tied for 41st place in 1995, and so has Woods's game. In his last six starts here, he has three victories, two top 10s and a tie for 18th in the 1999 event. Over 300 yards have been added to Augusta National, as well as more bunkers, trees, new tee boxes and a second cut of rough. After his practice round today, Ernie Els said it played to a distance of 7,600 yards, not the 7,290 on the scorecard.

Still, Woods said, he has learned most of the nuances of the golf course on "a place I feel like I'm very familiar with. It's not where I feel like I'm learning something each and every time I play it, or that I have to go out there and learn something. I feel I have a pretty good understanding of how to play each and every hole. It also gives you added confidence knowing you've done it [won] different ways."

That doesn't bode well for the rest of the field.

Phil Mickelson, still trying to win his first major, was asked today if he thought Woods is even better than he was in 2000, when he won three straight majors starting with a record-breaking performance at the U.S. Open in Pebble Beach.

"I don't know if that's true or not," Mickelson said, "but that's very impressive if it's true."

South African Retief Goosen admitted the only way to beat Woods here will be "to catch him on an off week when he's not playing too well. That's about it, I think. Obviously he had a long layoff [recovering from Dec. 2 knee surgery] and came out playing really well.

"Now he's sort of not playing at his best, like he says. But this week sort of gets him fired up. Right now, the course is playing so long and the ball is not rolling. So he's got that advantage, too."