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Woods returns to Masters as just another player

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    ** ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, APRIL 2-3 ** FILE - In this March 27, 2011 file photo, Tiger Woods places his ball on he seventh green prior to his putt during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill golf tournament in Orlando, Fla. Woods at the Masters is every bit the mystery he was a year ago. No one is quite sure what to expect from him now. His wife divorced him. He changed coaches and decided, at age 35, to rebuild his golf swing for the fourth time. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)


Tiger Woods at the Masters is every bit the mystery he was a year ago.

No one knew what to expect when Woods showed up at Augusta National last year without having played in five months, more vulnerable than invincible from the public humiliation of a sex scandal.

No one is quite sure what to expect from him now.

His wife divorced him. He changed coaches and decided, at age 35, to rebuild his golf swing for the fourth time.

He lost his No. 1 ranking to Lee Westwood, then Martin Kaymer. When he goes to this year’s Masters, which starts Thursday, it will be the first time since 1997 that Woods is outside the top five in the world ranking. Off the golf course, he has not replaced any of the corporate sponsors that left him.

And most glaring of all, Woods is not winning.

Not even close.

"It’s strange," Stewart Cink said. "We got so used to seeing him win."

He tied for fourth last year at Augusta, remarkable by any standard but his own. It raised false hopes that he could put his game back together quickly and resume his pursuit of history. But with each tournament, he resembles the guys he once routinely beat.

In 69 rounds since the Masters, Woods has broken par only 31 times. In 14 out of 18 tournaments, he has finished at least seven shots out of the lead. In the 18 tournaments before his downfall, that happened only three times.

At Firestone, where Woods had won seven times and had never finished out of the top five, he shot the highest 72-hole score of his career (298) and finished 30 shots behind the winner. In his first start this year at Torrey Pines, where his seven victories include the U.S. Open on a shattered leg, he finished 15 shots out of the lead.

That gap between his 14 majors and the record 18 won by Jack Nicklaus now looks like a gulf.

"I’m surprised that he has not bounced back by now," Nicklaus said. "He’s got such a great work ethic. He’s so determined to do what he wants to do. I’m very surprised that he has not popped back. I still think he’ll break my record. We’ll see. You probably can ask me that same question at the end of this year and we’ll see what the answer is. My guess is as good as yours."

That’s about all anyone can do when it comes to Woods — guess.

The divorce in August provided for shared parenting. Woods is about to move into a new home he is building in south Florida, not far from where his ex-wife will live. There have been tales of his 2-year-old son, Charlie, already swinging away with a golf club and wandering onto the range to watch Dad at work.

Woods keeps these details to himself, along with when and where he spends time with the toddler and big sister Sam, who turns 4 in June. Asked at Doral why he wasn’t playing more tournaments to get his game into shape, his blunt reply surprised even his handlers:

"Because I have a family. I’m divorced," Woods said, staring at the reporter without a trace of emotion. "If you’ve been divorced with kids, then you would understand."

Rumors and gossip continue to dog him — Who is he dating? When is he moving? Is he selling his boat? And it probably won’t abate. Woods entered the celebrity realm with the scandal, and remains firmly planted there, fodder for tabloids.

The question of far greater substance is his health, and Woods has been coy about addressing it.

His agent confirmed in December that Woods had a cortisone shot in his right ankle to relieve lingering soreness. Woods surprised the media at the Masters last year when he revealed he injured his right Achilles’ tendon while recovering from knee surgery.

Woods ended last season with his best golf until Graeme McDowell beat him on the final day. He played so well that even his caddie said, "The tide is turning." But it hasn’t. He looked ordinary two months later for the start of the 2011 season.

There was a time when few dared to criticize Woods. Not anymore.

Masters chairman Billy Payne wagged his finger at Woods last year — "It is simply not the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here. It is the fact that he disappointed all of us," Payne said. And 21-year-old Rory McIlroy wrote in an essay for Sports Illustrated magazine: "I’m not sure we are going to see him dominate again the way he did."

Woods used to answer such critics with the kind of golf that left no doubt who was the best in the game. Now, he talks about "the process" of getting better and how this swing change is the most comprehensive one yet.

"It’s finally starting to come around," he said last week at Bay Hill.

It was his final tournament before the Masters. He tied for 24th.

Woods, of course, is only part of the picture at the 75th Masters.

Defending champion Phil Mickelson had high hopes when he left town in a green jacket, wearing it in the drive-thru lane of a doughnut shop with his kids. His wife, diagnosed with breast cancer 11 months earlier, was there to greet him on the 18th green in one of the more emotional moments on a golf course where there have been many.

For the next six months, Mickelson had more than a dozen chances to become No. 1 in the world for the first time. Then came another health setback — his own — when he discovered he had psoriatic arthritis. He didn’t win the rest of the year. He has contended only once this year. Ever the optimist, Mickelson believes that will change when he drives down Magnolia Lane.

"I feel like the year kind of starts now," he said.

Westwood, the runner-up by three shots a year ago, has taken over the label as the best player without a major, and there’s no argument. Not only was he No. 1 in the world for 17 weeks, he has finished among the top three in all but one of his last five majors.

Even so, the 37-year-old Englishman has only four wins around the world during that stretch.

He is off to a slow start this year, and he has company.

Jim Furyk, whose three wins last year allowed him to capture the FedEx Cup and PGA Tour player of year honors, has barely made a peep the opening three months of the season. Ditto for Ernie Els, who craves a green jacket the way Greg Norman did before him.

Looking for a favorite?

The road to the Masters hasn’t offered many clues.

Seven of the 12 winners on the PGA Tour this year who will be at Augusta were outside the top 100 in the world when they won, a list that ranges from D.A. Points to Gary Woodland to Mark Wilson. All will be making their Masters debut.

"It’s an open Masters," three-time major winner Padraig Harrington told RTE Radio in Ireland. "The best players in the world at the moment have not won majors, and guys who have won majors are not in the best form in their lives. I’m not sure if the new guard is coming through at the Masters, or the old guard is taking control again. It’s a great Masters for the public to watch."

The Masters has the smallest field of any major — at least 99, the most since 1966 — and with so many subtleties on the greens, the same cast of characters seem to contend each year. Perhaps it’s little wonder that Woods and Mickelson have won six of the last 10, similar to generations ago when Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player were swapping green jackets.

Now, however, it appears to be anyone’s game — especially with so much uncertainty surrounding Woods.

Woods at least would figure to have a better chance than a year ago.

No, he hasn’t shown he is close to winning, but at least he’s playing. His caddie, Steve Williams, said Woods is so comfortable and experienced at Augusta that he played last year in large part on memory, recalling what kind of swing was required and hitting it.

Woods closed with a 66 at Doral for his only top 10 this year. He played a good round in tough conditions at Bay Hill until finishing with a double bogey. He says he is making progress. He has proved his skeptics wrong before.

"This year, it’s nice to have some tournaments under my belt," he said. "Last year I went into it just like I did the ’08 U.S. Open. I didn’t really practice before the ’08 U.S. Open because my leg was broken. Just go out there, show up and play. Those two venues, I knew the golf course and that helps a lot."

"It’s nice to be actually in more tournament shape going in."

How will that translate? Who knows?

Having gone nearly 17 months without winning, Woods no longer appears to be as imposing as he once was. The intimidation factor is gone. The guy in a red shirt on Sunday is teeing off too early for any of the players to notice.

About the only thing in his favor is the tournament itself.

"There are certain golf courses where … I feel pretty good and comfortable, no matter how my form is going into it," Woods said. "And Augusta is one of them."


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