The Masters: Tiger rising to the occasion

Tiger Woods acknowledges the crowd after sinking his Tiger Woods acknowledges the crowd after sinking his putt for birdie on the second green during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament in Orlando, Fla. (March 24, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

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It is the same old, familiar situation for the world's top two golfers going into another major championship. One of them is rolling, playing so well to be considered dominant. The other one is struggling, making the golf swing seem as complicated as splitting the atom.

The only slight difference, entering the Masters this week, is that it is completely reversed. Now it is Rory McIlroy, formerly No. 1 in the world and the winner of the most recent major, who seems lost. At one point this season, he just walked off the course in the middle of a round.

And Tiger Woods, who has been seeking his stride for almost as long as he has been aiming for his 15th major title (since 2008), is back on top and the undisputed favorite for the Green Jacket. A three-time winner already this season, Woods might even have regained a measure of the intimidation he once had (Rickie Fowler, playing with him the final round, chunking a wedge into the water, like a beginner, at Bay Hill).

"He's still better than Rory, he's still better than [Lee] Westwood when he was playing [his best]," said Curtis Strange, a major champion who will do analysis on ESPN at Augusta National on Thursday and Friday. "When you're standing on the first tee with Tiger Woods Sunday at the Masters, you know damned well you have to play one of your best rounds ever to win this tournament because he's going to play well. And that in itself is intimidating.

"And if he was to win the Masters, then I'm telling you, I just think it might [be just] like it was in 2000 . . . ''

Woods won three majors in 2000 and if he wins at Augusta, it could lead to who knows what for the rest of his career.

But the question is, can he win the Masters? Can he keep his drives in play? Woods played well last season, too, then collapsed in the weekends at majors. So the compelling part of the Masters this year is seeing if Woods, with a reinvigorated putting stroke, really is back to being well ahead of the pack.

"To me, the anticipation is almost like a heavyweight fight, when Ali is getting ready to step into the ring with Foreman or Frazier," said Paul Azinger, another major champion and commentator who also was on ESPN's pre-Masters conference call Thursday. "Tiger feels the pressure just like everyone else. He just deals with it better. And the pressure that he's feeling going into this Masters is real. So that's why I'm anticipating this Masters as much as any one I've ever watched, to see how he deals with it."

Woods' putting results are much better since he received a tip from fellow pro (and unsuccessful Ryder Cup partner) Steve Stricker. After his most recent win, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Woods compared 2013 with 2012: "I've gotten so much better since those events, and I've cleaned up a lot of different things in my game. I've turned some of the weaknesses I had last year into strengths."

If it were just a matter of counting majors, McIlroy would be entering Augusta with more momentum than anyone. He romped in the 2012 PGA by a record eight strokes. But his 2013 has been a nightmare, which might or might not have been ignited by switching to Nike equipment for a huge sum (and appearing with Woods in commercials).

His strengths, a smooth swing and devil-may-care insouciance, have not been reliable. McIlroy had to apologize for bailing out midround at the Honda Classic, and he canceled a humanitarian trip to Haiti for UNICEF this past week so he could do some last-minute cramming on his game at the Valero Texas Open.

"I feel like I'm hitting the ball similarly to the way I was last year," he said, noting that he missed a handful of cuts yet still managed to be Player of the Year. He does have experience with resilience. He had an epic collapse at the 2011 Masters, then scored a blowout win in his next major, the U.S. Open, two months later.

Still, as Azinger said, the bar is quite high: "The standard that Rory is measured by is Tiger Woods and he's not Tiger Woods. He's more like Phil Mickelson or Ernie Els or somebody like that. He's more normal."

Azinger added that if Woods keeps putting the way he has been lately, "I believe the gap between Tiger and the next best guy may be the size of the Grand Canyon again."

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