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Published: Tuesday, 4/8/2003

Few able to challenge Woods at the Masters

AUGUSTA, Ga. - It didn't come as any great shock when Tiger Woods failed to win the Players Championship a couple weekends back.

After all, the Sawgrass course plays no favorites. In recent years it has bowed to the power games of Davis Love III and David Duval, the laser-like accuracy of Hal Sutton, the all-around game of Woods, the putting wizardry of Justin Leonard. Heck, in 2002, a guy named Craig Perks, then ranked No. 203 in the world, rode a poker-hot finish to victory.

Sawgrass is a course for many horses.

Augusta National Golf Club is different. Tiger has made it a one-horse course.

The world's best golfer is shooting for his third straight win in the Masters this week.

No one has ever done it, just as no one had ever owned titles in all four majors at the same time until Woods polished off the Tiger Slam with a win here in 2001.

Anyone care to bet against him?

In winning three of the last six Masters, Woods is a combined 46 under par and has won by a total of 17 strokes. Overall, he has played 24 rounds at the National as a professional and has matched or bettered par in 22 of them.

Augusta seems to have no answer. It has added about all the length it can to combat the technological advances of equipment - the par-4 fifth hole has been lengthened with deeper, repositioned fairway bunkers for this year's tournament - but that just plays into Tiger's hands.

Woods has captured his three green jackets in eight tries and only two golfers - guys named Arnie and Jack - won as many Masters titles in as few starts.

Palmer and Nicklaus will play here this week, but neither has a chance of winning.

Nor do a lot of the others.

No player since Nicklaus, who won six Masters, has produced the double-whammy of power and course management to the extent Woods does.

He knows how to attack a course that has always favored long hitters - Tiger may not always be among the PGA Tour leaders in driving accuracy, but he controls the ball better than most noted big bombers - and he also knows when to throttle back and where to lay up.

Adding to the Woods mystique is what he has accomplished already this season despite missing several early tournaments because of knee surgery. He has won three of five starts - bringing his total to 37 victories in less than seven full pro seasons - despite the knee being less than 100 per cent and despite a case of food poisoning that had him staggering, for lack of a better word, during the final round en route to an 11-shot victory at Bay Hill.

“I can't imagine him playing much better than he is right now, but we say that every year, don't we?” said Scott Hoch.

Yes we do, which is why Woods is the prohibitive favorite in every major championship.

And that is especially the case at one-horse Augusta National.

So, can anyone beat Tiger this week at the Masters? Maybe 10 guys, tops.

Among the longest of the hitters, the rejuvenated Love and perpetual contender/pretender Phil Mickelson get the nod, although Mickelson's return from a long layoff - a missed cut this past weekend in Atlanta - contrasts with how Woods returned after his knee surgery.

Sergio Garcia, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els are other top big hitters, but a wrist injury that caused him to miss the Players Championship makes Els' chances iffy. Garcia needs to make more mid-length, knee-knocking putts and Singh, although an effective grinder, doesn't seem to have the same touch on the greens that he did when he won on Augusta's slick surfaces in 2000.

David Toms has average length off the tee and won't reach many of the par-5 holes in two, but he can make up for that with one of the best wedge games on tour. Jim Furyk and Justin Leonard are short compared to most players in the upper echelon of the world rankings, but are dogged competitors when their putters are working some magic.

Chris DiMarco and Retief Goosen, last year's runner-up to Woods by three shots, seem to play well at Augusta despite being so-so off the tee. And Ireland's Padraig Harrington, with a steadily-improving game, was in contention last year.

OK, we lied. That's 11.

But that's about all.



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