Masters talk turns to Tiger Woods and golf, sort of

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The finest golfer of his day — of any day, perhaps — was talking about his championships. There were a lot to talk about.

After all, Jack Nicklaus has won the Masters six times. He has won 18 majors in all. And if he isn't the best golfer who has ever lived, he's the best teller-of-golf-stories who has ever lived. He has a memory a moment, and he's never in a hurry, and every story is rich in detail and lore.

So, of course, the writers were asking him about … Tiger Woods.

We will pause here so you may groan if you wish.

Of course it was about Tiger. Around here it is Tiger all the time. The Hooters girls on the street are talking about Tiger. The customers pouring through the gate are talking about Tiger. Tuesday, it seemed, every golfer who has ever teed up a Titleist was talking about Tiger.

I am fairly certain that if, say, David Duval had burst into flames and sprinted across the 18th green and the paramedics had had to roll him around the sand trap to put out the flames, the first question he would have been asked would have been whether he thought Tiger, too, might get hot this weekend.

I know, I know. Speaking for the writers, we're kind of weary of the subject, too.

Still, the news is the news, and the national story that is Tiger Woods Week continued Tuesday. Phil Mickelson, a two-time Masters champion, answered questions about Tiger. Paddy Harrington, too. And Steve Stricker and Geoff Ogilvy and Stewart Cink and even Raymond Floyd, who doesn't even play the Masters anymore.

As you might have expected, this has become the Tiger Woods Open, and for the past two days, his shadow has spread from the clubhouse to Amen Corner. It is as if Tiger Woods is Gladys Knight and every other golfer in the field is a Pip.

Soon, however, this will change. This tournament is too special to become a sideshow. This course is too sacred to play second fiddle. Eventually, Augusta National will strike back.

The sooner the better, but eventually, karma says this week will remembered for a golf tournament after all.

If there was a blessing Tuesday, it was that most of the questions asked of golfers were about Tiger's game. After being away from competitive golf for so long, can Woods really compete here? With so many people looking at him differently, can he maintain his focus?

"That's a crazy question," Mickelson said. "Can he win? He showed us he can win in much worse conditions in the 2008 U.S. Open (when Woods played with a wrecked knee). I played with him the first couple of rounds, and he was not physically at his best, and his game was not the sharpest, and yet he still wins. He finds a way to get it done."

Said Ogilvy: "We've spent 15 years underestimating what he can do. I have 100 percent confidence in his ability to win this tournament. Not saying he's going to, but I think he can."

And so it went. In all, Nicklaus answered 41 questions, and 19 were about Woods. Mickelson wasn't in the interview room nearly as long, and he answered nine. About Tiger's chances. About Tiger's apology to his fellow pros. About Tiger's aura. In other words, they asked everything Tigerish this side of Frosted Flakes.

Said Harrington: "I have no idea what's going on in his head this week, if his mind is on golf or if it isn't. You can never quite tell."

That said, Harrington said he wouldn't be surprised if Woods was in contention Sunday.

"No," Harrington said. "I think he's favored to win the tournament, and those guys who set the odds know a lot more than I do. No, I wouldn't be surprised at all. No matter what, no matter how he looks or what he comes up and says, you don't know fully how this is affecting him inside and how it's affecting his golf."

Said Floyd: "I'm more concerned about him, you know, his personal life. I think the golf will come back when he gets comfortable from the personal side, and I wish him the very best."

Most of the golfers seemed to agree: Woods didn't have to apologize for all the questions they had to answer about him.

"He doesn't owe me an apology," Mickelson said. "In the last 12 years, he's done so much for the game of golf. I don't know if there has been an individual who has capitalized on the opportunities he's brought to golf. He doesn't owe me a thing."

As for Nicklaus, he's expecting a familiar game from Woods. A familiar desire, too. Don't think for a minute that Woods doesn't want to surpass Nicklaus' 18 major titles.

"Of course he does," Nicklaus said of Woods, who has 14 majors. "Why do you think he's here. I don't think he's here for his health or anything. He's here to play golf. That's what he is. He's a very good golfer."

More than anything, that may be why Tiger came back now. This year, three of the majors are being played at courses where Woods has done well: Augusta National, the British Open at St. Andrews and the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Nicklaus said he never thought Woods would miss the Masters.

So, can Woods still catch Nicklaus' major total?

"I think this year will have a lot to do with that," Nicklaus, 70, said. "I said if he didn't play this year, he would have a hard time. But he's going to play this year. I expect him to be focused, and you know, he's pretty good when he's focused. So I would say his chances are pretty darned good. If he doesn't, I'll still be very surprised."

Of course, that begs the next question. If Woods wins this Masters, all things considered, where would it rank of his list of achievements?

Like it or not, from the sound of it, we have a few days left to discuss the possibilities.

Masters talk turns to Tiger Woods and golf, sort of 04/06/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 7, 2010 1:42am]

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