Plenty to ponder during Masters week

Walking off Washington Road onto the grounds of Augusta National Golf Club is a little like falling down the rabbit hole Alice tumbled into on her way to Wonderland. It's entering a whole other world.

The initial reaction of first-timers to The Masters is usually one of huge disappointment to find that the most sacred thoroughfare in golf, Magnolia Lane, runs into a street as cluttered with fast-food outlets, mini-marts and bargain basement motels as any in America. But stepping through the front gates of Augusta National is to leave the gaudy shrillness of the 21st century for the elegant politeness of another time. The Masters truly is, as Jim Nantz will remind us a bit too often in whispered tones a tad too reverential, a tradition like no other.

The Old Course at St. Andrews may be the home of golf, but Augusta National is its cathedral.

The storylines heading into a Masters are always as extensive as the queue that snakes its way into the Augusta National merchandise pavilion where the yellow logo of a pin flag stuck into the southeast corner of the United States awaits on a multitude of items available to anyone with a credit card that is not maxed out. But the most treasured souvenir anyone brings back from The Masters is memories -- reminiscences of Jack Nicklaus in 1986, Greg Norman in 1996, Tiger Woods the next year and Mike Weir last year. No tournament produces a great finish as frequently as The Masters. It is as dependable as the returning bloom on the dogwoods, magnolias and azaleas.

This year, John Daly is back and Martha Burk is not. Arnold Palmer is going and the TV sponsors are still gone. U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk is missing because of an injury and former British Open champion David Duval is just plain missing. Phil Mickelson is trying for his first major championship for the 42nd time as a professional -- no longer the fresh-face kid with the sheepish grin but rather a father with three kids of his own -- and Ernie Els and Vijay Singh -- multiple major winners both -- will try to build their case that they are true rivals for Woods for the title of No. 1 in the world. But the most intriguing questions to be answered involve young Mr. Woods.

A guy who has 40 PGA Tour victories, including eight major championships, and is only 28 years old would seem to have nothing for which to answer. But, when word and deed have conspired to make the opponent not his contemporaries but rather history, the questions become a lot more demanding and the test is graded against a rigid curve.

Two years ago, it seemed to be a gimme that Woods would shatter Nicklaus' record of 18 professional major titles. Now, still not even halfway there and on a six major non-winning streak, it is not so easily assumed that Woods will surpass Nicklaus' mark. As wondrous as Woods' skills are as a golfer, as often as he has seemingly willed magic to happen, it could very well be that the most amazing thing he has done in his eight years on tour is to remind us how incredibly great Nicklaus was. Judged against the talents of Woods, Nicklaus' achievement of 18 major victories and 19 second-place finishes in majors is all the more impressive.

Back about the time Woods was winning his first Masters in 1997, Nicklaus was saying that Tiger would win more green jackets than the 10 Nicklaus and Palmer combined to win. With three Masters titles, Woods is only halfway to Nicklaus' record six, and still well short of the 11 he needs to surpass the Nicklaus-Palmer total. Let's assume that the next eight years of Woods' career will be as productive as the first eight years. That means at the age of 36 Tiger would have 80 PGA Tour victories -- just two short of the record by Sam Snead -- and would have six green jackets, matching Nicklaus' wardrobe. But his total of 16 major championships would still be two short of tying Nicklaus.

My feeling has always been that Tiger will break the mark of 18 majors because he knows where the finish line is. He is an incredibly goal-oriented athlete and the goal is carved in stone. I also believe that if the ages were reversed and Tiger was in the clubhouse with the record and Jack was chasing him, Nicklaus would shatter the mark because that's exactly how competitive that man is. In this race for history Woods has the advantage of having the last at-bats.

Records, however, are more difficult to chase the closer you get. It's one of the paradoxes of motion. To get somewhere you must first get halfway there. And from there halfway way, and from there halfway, seemingly always approaching but never reaching your goal. In sports, what happens is that the pressure builds. There are already signs of that with Woods. Right now one of the easiest ways to get on Tiger's bad side is to suggest that his problems driving the ball in the fairway have developed since he sent swing coach Butch Harmon packing two years ago. But the truth is that Woods has not won a major since he stopped working with Harmon at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage.

While going six consecutive majors without winning is a problem mere mortals would love to have -- Nicklaus had two 10-major winless streaks and another of 20 before he won his final major at the age of 46 -- the simple truth is that the longer Woods goes without a major the harder it will be for him to win one. And the same holds true for his assault on Nicklaus' record. There was a time when the question before the panel was: When will Tiger break Jack's record? Now the question is getting dangerously close to becoming: Will Tiger break Jack's record? The twisting of the question should not diminish our appreciation of Woods one bit but rather serve to increase our respect for Nicklaus.

This much we know for sure about this Masters: Sometime on Friday afternoon, Arnold Palmer's 74-year-old legs will carry him up the steep hill that leads to the 18th green at Augusta National. Slightly stoop-shoulder, Arnold will wave to the massive gallery, acknowledge its ovation with a thumbs-up gesture and putt out in a PGA Tour event for what almost certainly will be the last time in a professional career that began in 1954. Heck, his career is old enough to join the senior tour. If Nicklaus was the best player of his generation, Palmer was the best loved. And only at The Masters, only at Augusta National could the professional lives of players whose ages are 74, 64 and 28 -- Palmer, Nicklaus and Woods -- intersect. That's part of why this week is special.

The other reason this week is special will be revealed on Sunday afternoon. Somebody will win in some memorable fashion, it just always happens that way at The Masters. Always. How about Mickelson finally getting a major? How nuts would the place be on Sunday if Daly is in contention? How about a leaderboard with a half-dozen of the best players all challenging Woods? My hunch this week is Darren Clarke, if for no other reason than I'd love to see a champions' dinner next year where the menu consists of Guinness and cigars. That would bring a little bit of Washington Road inside the gates of Augusta National.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine

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