Tiger, Rory make for Master-ful drama

Published Apr. 3, 2012 1:00 a.m. EDT

World No. 1 Luke Donald calls it the “most anticipated event of the year” in golf.

Former No. 1 Lee Westwood says the stellar play of all the sport’s top players leading into the Masters has “whipped up a bit of a frenzy.”

It’s certainly true that there hasn’t been this keen an interest going into the annual rite of spring for a very long time.

“There’s too many guys,” shrugged Adam Scott when asked to pick a favorite.


The charge is being led, predictably, by Tiger Woods, who in his last start, two weeks ago at Bay Hill, won a full-field event for the first time since his life was plunged into a tabloid abyss in late 2009.

His rivals, be sure, were paying attention.

“It was a huge win for him,” Phil Mickelson said on Tuesday.

“It gives him a lot of confidence and it makes being in that situation after having already closed the deal a lot easier to do.

“You would not want to have your first win in a couple of years be at a major, it would be that much more difficult.

“I think he’s going to have a great week . . . sucks for us, but . . .”

Not that anyone’s conceding anything, especially Donald, who seemed at the very least bemused by all the talk of this Masters being a two-horse race between Woods and Rory McIlroy.

“I think it’s a little naive to say that they are the only two that have a chance to win around here,” the Englishman said.

“I’m still a decent number with the bookies, aren’t I?

“I don’t know if I’ve been written off yet.”

He certainly hasn’t, and neither has Westwood, who’s played well here in the past and is off to a fast start this season.

Nor has Doral champion Justin Rose, last week’s winner Hunter Mahan or even Scott, who almost gave Australia its first green jacket last year.

Nor, for that matter, has Mickelson, the three-time Masters champion whose game always seems to find an extra gear when he turns down Magnolia Drive.

“It’s my favorite week of the year, and I just enjoy every minute of it,” Lefty said.

He knows the course so well that it hasn’t mattered how he’s played coming in to previous Masters; he’s typically always around the top of the leader board on Sundays.

“After winning 2004 (his first Masters victory), the pressure has not been the same,” he said.

“Because there was this burden of having never won a major. When I won in 2004, it was no longer pressure I felt, it was excitement.”

McIlroy might feel a little of both, trying to erase the demons of 2010, when his final-round, four-shot lead disintegrated with a back-nine capitulation.

The 22-year-old Irishman — who went on to win the U.S. Open by eight shots — was refreshingly honest and humorous when he was made to forensically reconstruct last year’s Sunday mistakes.

“It wasn’t the end of the world,'' he said. "It’s only golf. It’s not like anyone died out there.

“I learned a lot.

“As a person and as a golfer, I wasn’t ready to win the Masters, wasn’t ready to win a major.”

This time, he says, will be different.

“It was cool to see someone learn from their mistakes like that and apply it (at the U.S. Open),” Woods said about his young rival.

“He was playing so well (and) just had one bad round — it happens to everybody.

“He learned from it, applied it and ran away with it. That was some pretty impressive playing at the Open.”

“He has all the makings of being a great champion for a long period of time.”

Which brings us back to Woods.

Is he back?

If his Tuesday media session was any gauge, then the answer was a resounding yes.

He told a few funny stories, filibustered whenever he could to avoid the potential of unplatable questions and generally offered little in the way of true insight into his game or the psyche of a man who hasn’t won a major since June 2008.

Playing his cards close to his chest, just like the old days.

The four-time champion came close here the past two years — finishing tied for fourth both times — without anything approaching the solid ball striking he showed in winning at Bay Hill.

“Consistently, with this type of control, it’s been a few years,” he said of how well he’s controlling his ball.

“As far as having the speed and the pop in my game, it’s been a very long time.

“I feel like I’m hitting the ball just as consistently day-in and day-out as I did (in 2000).”

And that’s the gold standard in golf — Tiger Woods circa 2000. So if the now 36-year-old can somehow magically turn back the clock, it’s got to be daunting for his rivals.

Of course, not all of them are convinced that he’s back because of one good week, but there are those, such as Westwood, who see Woods getting back into the saddle quickly.

“One thing is for sure about people that are winners,” he said. “When they get back into the situation of trying to win a tournament, they know how to generally finish it off.”

Primarily because of a balky putter, Woods hasn’t been able to do that at Augusta National since 2005.

But it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he scratches that seven-year itch on Sunday.