Masters is the Tiger Woods show once again

April 4, 2012

It will be like 1997 all over again. That was the year we first experienced the phenomenon known as Tigermania — a cultural phenomenon that made little old ladies who wouldn't know a par-5 from a parfait fall all over themselves to catch a glimpse of Tiger Woods.

The 1997 Masters was the first time golf broke out of its niche. Tiger was everywhere. He made the cover of Fortune and People magazines, sat on the couch with Oprah and got the full satire treatment on "Saturday Night Live."

Now, almost four full years removed from his previous major victory and seven years from his most recent Masters win, Tiger and his mania are back. Patrons will swoon, reporters will swarm, and everyone, from the trash collector to the Wall Street CEO, will follow Tiger's every step around Augusta National this week.

That is exactly what players like Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Luke Donald, and Hunter Mahan want. If all eyes are on Tiger, those guys have a chance to play spectacular golf without fighting the fanfare.

You see, the problem with Tigermania was always the mania. His presence created a circus-like atmosphere everywhere he went, which was a distraction to those paired with him and a nightmare for those playing immediately ahead of or behind him. Try hitting a 5-iron to a tucked pin with 2,000 people charging up to see the guy behind you.

Through the years, as Tiger's dominance on the wane and his reputation tarnished, the interest turned to players like McIlroy and Mickelson, not because they were Tiger but because they weren't. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred. In the case of Tigermania, the energy spread to players who were either the next Tiger or the anti-Tiger.

Now, with Woods back in the spotlight, the golfers competing in the 2012 Masters stand a better chance of getting their work done while most of the audience focuses on that other guy.

"I like how I've kind of built into this week," Mickelson said in his pre-tournament news conference. "I started at Bay Hill, started playing well but hit some loose shots. I eliminated a lot of the loose shots last week and steadily got better. I had three good days here (at Augusta National) last week, as well. So I'm playing well and looking forward to the week."

Phil is not only playing well, he is in the best physical condition of his career. Gone is the sag in the midsection and the flap beneath his chin. He has taken to his 40s better than most expected, putting in the work not just improve his golf swing but to get himself physically ready to extend his major championship career.

McIlroy is also ready, having been in Augusta a week and having played better than anyone throughout the early months of 2012.

"I think it's great for the tournament and great for the game of golf that Tiger is back and playing well," McIlroy said. "He created excitement that no one else in the game can. A lot of people want to see him make history. I'm just looking forward to playing well and hopefully getting myself in contention, and maybe having the opportunity to go up against the greatest player, certainly, of the last 20 years."

Luke Donald, the No. 1 player in the world, wants to escape the "best never to win a major" moniker, while Hunter Mahan wants to prove he deserves the spot he now occupies as the top American in the World Rankings.

And they all want to beat Tiger while he is playing his best. That is why they compete. The fact that they might just slide up to the top of the leaderboard while Tiger is being swallowed by a throng of thousands makes it all the better.

The jacket is just as green no matter how many patrons have followed you.