AUGUSTA, Ga. — The first tee shot clattered through a pair of pines on the left side of the 13th fairway, finally landing on the wrong side of Rae’s Creek. Tiger Woods tried again, and this wasn’t any better. Fans peered across the fairway and only heard the ball rifle through some bushes.
“He’s hitting another one,” a man announced from the gallery.
The third shot with a fairway metal caused them to retreat until it turned with a slight draw, clipping a pine branch and settling in the second cut of rough.
Woods played nine holes Wednesday morning in his final tuneup for the Masters, and how he played was of little consequence. Even so, that snapshot from the 13th tee was another reminder how quickly the best plans can fall apart, even for the No. 1 player on top of his game, especially at Augusta National.
Think back to Woods at his absolute best.
He won 10 times in 2000, including three majors, and finished no worse than fifth in 19 of his 22 tournaments worldwide. Going into the Masters, he either won or finished second in 10 of his previous 11 PGA Tour events. It felt as though everyone was playing for second at Augusta that year.
Woods made a double bogey and a triple bogey in a span of three holes, shot 75 in the opening round and never caught up.
The hype over Woods is not that strong this year, though there is no doubt who is driving the conversation. Those who have played with him on the course or hit balls next to him on the range talked about how he never missed a shot. His putting has been pure since he got that tip from Steve Stricker last month at Doral. And it shows in the scores. Woods has won his last two tournaments, at Doral and Bay Hill, and neither was terribly close.
When the Masters begins Thursday, he is the odds-on favorite to end his five-year drought in the majors, and win a green jacket for the first time since 2005.
Trouble is, Augusta National doesn’t play favorites.
“Obviously, Tiger is Tiger,” said Scott Piercy, who will play alongside Woods and Luke Donald in the opening two rounds. “He’s always going to be that target. He knows it, and that’s how he wants it. But there’s a lot of people getting closer. And the golfing gods, or whatever you want to call them, have a lot to do with winning. A bounce here, a bounce there. A lip in, a lip out.”
Angel Cabrera got one of those bounces off a pine tree and back into the 18th fairway in 2009 that helped him save par and win a playoff on the next hole.
Sure, he was a former U.S. Open champion, but the big Argentine was No. 69 in the world that year, the lowest-ranked player to ever win the Masters.
The hole got in the way twice for Charl Schwartzel in 2011, once on a chip across the first green that fell for birdie, another a shot from the third fairway that dropped for eagle. He finished with four straight birdies to win.