When we last saw Augusta National Golf Club, Tiger Woods was wearing the green jacket and Superman's cape, and we were no longer laughing hysterically at Jack Nicklaus's prediction that Woods will win more Masters titles than he and Arnold Palmer combined. (They have 10.) Woods's tournament-record score of 18 under par and his 12-shot margin of victory were so convincing that if Nicklaus said that Woods will win the next 10 Masters, we probably would nod in agreement.
Some players feel that way too. "What can you do?" says Tom Lehman. "You can't just say, 'Oh, well, we're playing for second,' but I like my chances in the Open a lot better than in the Masters." Paul Stankowski, who tied for fifth last year at the Masters, says, "To beat Tiger at Augusta when he has his A game is going to be hard. A bad week for him may be eight under, which is probably good enough to win most Masters."
Length can tame Augusta, and last year Woods was, on average, 25 yards longer than the field and never hit more than a seven-iron to the par-4s. Toss in the fact that he was 22 under on the final 63 holes, and it's easy to understand why everyone says he will be the favorite at Augusta for years to come. Still, if you are ready to pencil Woods in as a mortal lock next week, I offer this advice: Don't.
In fact, there is no way he is going to win the Masters this year. Call me crazy, but it's a safe bet. Consider what Davis Love III says: "Tiger's good, but he can't win every year. Not even Nicklaus did that...although he did win six." Or this from Brad Faxon: "Last year was probably the best week Tiger's ever had. If he's not on his game, he's not going to win." Faxon might have also pointed out that Woods hasn't come close to that level of play since.
The one club that could betray Woods is his putter. He didn't three-putt once last year. A repeat of that performance is about as likely as his serving fried chicken and collard greens at the champions' dinner. Tour regulars will tell you that Woods is only a B putter. Did you see him last month at Doral? Tee to green, he was the best player in the tournament, but all week he missed putts that a 10 handicapper could have made. The same thing happened the week before in Los Angeles—six-and eight-footers sliding left. If Woods putts like that at Augusta, he'll be helping someone else slip on the green jacket come Sunday.
It's also worth remembering that Woods hasn't won a PGA Tour event since the Western Open nine months ago, that he fell off the radar screen in the other majors and got his head handed to him in the Ryder Cup. Sure, he beat Ernie Els in Thailand this year with a dramatic closing charge (and a lackluster final-round 73 from Els), but back home he has been in contention on Sunday five times this season and has been beaten by Phil Mickelson, Scott Simpson, Billy Mayfair, Michael Bradley and Els. That's not a slump, but it's not indicative of a great golfer on a roll, either.
Course management is another potential problem. To put it more bluntly, Woods is too reckless. The Masters was the only major in which he didn't post big numbers born of over-confidence. One of the things that makes Woods so compelling is his willingness to challenge a course, especially after he has hit one into the boonies. Perhaps you have seen him in a tee box recently, grimacing in disgust, one arm extended to the right? Bad lie, green blocked by a tree, water left. Time to lay up? Hell, no. Galleries love it, but this approach cost him dearly in the U.S. and British Opens. Maybe he has learned from that. But maybe he hasn't. In the tee box at 12 on Sunday, surveying that insidious par-3 with Rae's Creek in front and the pin to the right, will Woods go for the flag and risk a double bogey, or will he be patient enough to take his par and do his scoring on the upcoming par-5s?
Here's one last reason to doubt Woods's chances of repeating history. In nearly two thirds of a century, only Nicklaus and Nick Faldo have won consecutive Masters. Woods could be the third, but don't engrave his name on the Masters trophy just yet. One thing Greg Norman has taught us: History isn't written until after it's made.