I believe I share this with many of Tiger Woods' competitors: I'm rooting for him to win the Masters.
My love for watching and playing golf dates back to dusty public-course days when the only Tiger I knew of played for Detroit or roared at me in Frosted Flakes commercials. Masters Sunday has long been my favorite day in sports -- not even the Super Bowl can match it for annual epic drama. But now the only way I get to talk golf on "First Take" is if Tiger Woods wins on the course or loses off it.
So please, Tiger, prove me wrong and win this Masters that just about everyone has conceded to you. Even defending champion Bubba Watson recently told CNN he has only one chance against you: "Hopefully he gets sick."
Please, Tiger, quit reading this now and keep telling yourself that Winning (Three Tournaments Before the Masters) Takes Care of Everything. Please, Tiger fanatics who watch golf only if he's in contention, spare yourselves my myth-busting. You, too, PGA Tour pros who know even more second-place money and second-tier endorsement dollars will fall from Tiger like golden crumbs if he finally wins another Masters.
Woods isn't playing nearly as well as he was going into last year's Masters, when he finished tied for 40th. At this time last year, he ranked 55th in driving accuracy -- not bad. Now he ranks 147th -- not good. Last year, he ranked 29th in greens in regulation. Now: 76th. Uh-oh. In overall ball-striking: 12th a year ago, 79th now. Tiger "in the" Woods?
How in the name of Robert Tyre Jones Jr. is Eldrick Woods a prohibitive favorite to win his first Masters in eight years? Repeat: EIGHT YEARS.
Because Woods is riding the hottest putting streak of his career -- maybe anybody's career. In the most recent of his three wins this year, the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Tiger tied for 71st in fairways hit. But his strokes gained putting (plus-2.81) led the field by far and was by far Tiger's widest margin since the stat was introduced nine years ago. In the final two rounds, Tiger made 30 of 31 putts inside 10 feet. Carmelo Anthony only wishes he could get that crazy hot -- Chevy Chase in "Caddyshack" nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh hot.
Before Tiger won Arnie's tournament, he won at Doral despite ranking only 30th in fairways hit. But his strokes gained putting was the third best of his career. So obviously, Tiger again camouflaged or canceled wild tee shots by making putts no one else in the field could. And just as obviously, there is no way Tiger's putter can remain this magic of a wand.
That lesson cost Stricker $620,000, the difference between his second-place check at Doral and Tiger's $1.5 million winner's share. Think Stricker really cares? In just four events this year, he already has made $1,845,420 without a single win. Thank you, Tiger!
Don January, who won 10 times on tour (and was a favorite of mine as a kid), recently told Golf Digest: "Money changes everything. Once, you had to be a world-beater just to make a living at tournament golf. You don't have to be even a real good player to make a hell of a lot of money now."
Never has there been a sport in which so many competitors now WANT one guy to dominate. Think any rival in Jack Nicklaus' day wanted him to win a single one of his 18 majors? Not a chance. Nothing in it for them. Golf has always been a gentleman's game, but those gentlemen cared only about courteously ripping each other's throats out on the leaderboard. Not anymore.
This certainly isn't to suggest Tiger's rivals LET him win, just that few, if any (maybe even including his most outspoken rival, Phil Mickelson), would mind seeing him win a lot more majors. Good for business. The point: No other player (including Rory McIlroy) seems hell-bent on knocking Tiger off the No. 1 throne he recently regained.
Naturally, at Augusta National this week, Tiger's practice-round partner has been Stricker. Please, Steve, fine-tune Tiger's stroke. But here's what I learned about this golf course in the 19 times I covered the Masters and the one time I played it: Its greens are an undulating minefield of optical illusions, fake breaks, hidden demons that can seep into your psyche. One moment your putter is Wonderboy, the next it might as well be a serpent. You can lose it fast.
Tiger says the biggest disappointment of his career was trying and failing to win the 2006 Masters for his dying dad. The harder he tried to make putts, the worse he got. That's Augusta.
And for very different reasons, that could happen this week. Imagine the building pressure on Woods, who has been stuck on 14 major championship wins for almost five years. Yet recently his friend and teammate from Stanford, Notah Begay, said Tiger is focused on winning 20 majors. TWENTY! Uh, how about just No. 15?
Last year, Tiger won a marquee event heading into the first three majors -- Arnie's tournament, Jack's and his own. Tiger was a combined 8 under in Rounds 1 and 2 of last year's four majors (and tied for the 36-hole lead at the U.S. Open and PGA) ... yet he went 15-over in Rounds 3 and 4! The pivotal pressure-cooker round is always the third for Tiger. Why? Because of the most inexplicably glaring hole in any superstar resume ever: Not once in his 60 majors has Tiger won without leading after three rounds. Think about that. For all his talent -- for all the all-time clutch shots and putts -- he does not have the come-from-behind gene.
Eight times in his 18 major wins, Nicklaus came from behind on Sunday without the three-round lead.
Now for the other monumental misconception about Woods: After he overpowered Augusta National with his 12-shot hello-world victory in 1997, his reputation grew like a home run slugger's because he could drive the ball so much farther than any other human. He "brought Augusta to its knees" by turning the par 5s into short par 4s. Millions of new golf fans literally bought into the myth that Tiger won with his Nike driver. Yet as Tiger's career unfolded, the truth became just the opposite: He continues to be the most inconsistent driver of any great player ever.
And under pressure, the greatest scrambler/putter ever.
This week, I wish he'd leave the driver in his locker and just sting that 3-wood down the middle every time. But now, thanks in large part to Early Tiger, Augusta plays absurdly long with par 4s that could be 5s. So Tiger will hit his driver and he will miss fairways and he will find trees and maybe some water and have to scramble and putt like crazy.
Did I mention Tiger ranks 145th this year in proximity to the pin on shots from 75-100 yards?
The biggest obstacle between Tiger and 20 majors is the 23-year-old McIlroy. Intriguingly, Tiger has befriended the kid who grew up in awe of Tiger, perhaps hoping to keep "friends" close and obstacles closer.
It's certainly possible the off-course scandal that shattered Tiger's marriage and family -- and his resulting 12-step-style rehab stint -- helped turn Tiger the competitor from cold-blooded to warm-blooded killer. But I'm not buying the recent text Tiger sent McIlroy, exhorting him to get with it and win in Houston. For a reported $100 million, McIlroy risked a season-long slump by agreeing to change clubs and ball and join Tiger at Nike. Do you really believe Tiger wants McIlroy to find his game for the Masters?
The text's intent, I believe, was to apply pressure, not reduce it. Yet Sunday in San Antonio, McIlroy made eight birdies, shot 66 and would've won if Martin Laird hadn't shot 63. Uh-oh, Tiger.
Yes, Tiger's body language and aura suggest he's in his most peaceful place since that infamous Thanksgiving night in 2009. He has happily acknowledged he's dating Lindsey Vonn, herself a professional athlete and celebrity who can perhaps help him deal with this week's pressure. But that scandal forced golf's king to deal with something he'd never had to: extremely public shame, which led to humility, which created competitive doubt. Pre-scandal, he was fueled by pressure. Now, he battles it.
Golf needs him. His rivals need him. We golf fans in the media need him to WIN THIS MASTERS. Yet ...
The other day ESPN's Mike Tirico asked Woods what would happen if he doesn't pass Jack.
The old Tiger would've said, "Not an option."
This one surprised me by saying, "If I try and don't get there, so be it. But at least I tried. ... It was a fun road."
I do not love this Tiger's chances at this Masters.