Masters tradition? Tiger makes own

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The Masters has made itself into the best-loved tournament in golf because of tradition. The early April playing date, the blooming flowers, the back-nine charges -- they are as much a part of the tournament as the color green.

There's one part of The Masters in recent years that has no truck with tradition, that has taken the unofficial code of life at Augusta National and made it into confetti. That would be two-time defending champion Tiger Woods.

Tradition dictates that a player needs to compete in The Masters for several years in order to grasp the subtleties of the greens and the roll of the fairways. As a 21-year-old in his first Masters as a professional, Woods set the tournament scoring record of 18-under 270 and won by 12 strokes.

And let's not even get into the cheeseburgers that he put on the menu of the Champions Dinner the following spring.

Tradition also dictates the difficulty in repeating as champion. Prior to last year, only Jack Nicklaus (1965-66) and Nick Faldo (1989-90) had won consecutive championships. Both of them won the defense of their title in a playoff. Woods not only joined them in 2002, he did so with the ease of Randy Johnson on a Triple-A mound. Woods began the day tied with Retief Goosen. In three holes, he built a three-stroke lead. No one got within two of him the rest of the day, and he won by three.

And now we come to this year, when Woods will attempt to defy tradition again and become the first golfer to win three consecutive Masters. "No one's ever done it before," Woods said Tuesday. "And I've been able to do certain things in golf that no one's ever done before. And if you're ever in that position, you want to take advantage of it because it doesn't happen all the time."

When Nicklaus tried it in 1967, he missed the cut (and didn't do so again until 1994). In 1991, Faldo finished 12th but didn't come close to any of the contenders.

The conditions are prime for Woods. The course will play longer than "War and Peace." Golfers are hitting long irons into par-4s as if it were 50 years ago. After one more lengthy rainstorm late Wednesday afternoon, the ninth hole, with its downhill swoop as it travels back to the clubhouse, hosted a small pond in its fairway.

Will F. Nicholson, Jr., the chair of the club's competition committee, said Wednesday morning that the three-plus inches of rain the course absorbed on Monday and Tuesday had forced the club to hire 31 hand-pushed mowers. It's too wet to get the machinery on the fairways. "The golf course has taken just about as much water as it can take," Nicholson said. Late Wednesday, the club announced that tee times for Thursday have been pushed back 30 minutes.

Until the course dries out somewhat, Nicholson said the club would mow only the landing areas. The drying out will begin on Friday, when 20 mile-per-hour winds are forecast. Long course, blustery winds -- who better than Woods to control his ball in these conditions?

He won the Match Play earlier this year on a sopping-wet course buffeted early in the week by chilly winds. He won at Bay Hill in a torrential downpour (while beset by food poisoning, to boot). In fact, Woods pointed out Tuesday, it has rained at every tournament he has played this year. He isn't likely to play another Tour event until May, so his chance at sunshine will have to wait. (Next week, Woods puts on Tiger Jam, his charity event, in Las Vegas, where he will also tape a SportsCenter commercial with Stuart Scott.)

Most PGA Tour pros would rather talk to their ex-wives than answer more questions about Woods. Reigning British Open champion Ernie Els has been open about breaking himself of his obsession with beating Woods. "He'll always be there," Els said. "I've just got to start whipping him."

Davis Love III, now third in the World Ranking after his six-stroke victory at the Players, brushed off an inquiry about the import of a threepeat: "I don't want to get into what that means. But it would be an incredible accomplishment."

Phil Mickelson, trying to round his game into shape after a five-week paternity leave, said, "I don't think that it is my job or any other player's job to try to challenge another individual."

Just when you think his fellow competitors are sick of answering questions about him, some of them will step back and see a bigger picture. Jay Haas, who played with Woods in the par-3 tournament Wednesday, said recently, "I love to watch him hit balls."

Woods and Haas played in the first threesome of the par-3, which the rain subsequently washed out. Thus another Masters tradition remains intact. The par-3 winner has never gone on to win the main event. Oh, well -- Woods has to save some traditions to break in another year.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.