Commentary

Weekend set up for memorable Masters

Originally Published: April 9, 2010
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- If this were any other tournament and if the guy trailing them by 2 strokes were any other golfer, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter -- with their second-round Masters leads -- would be feeling pretty good about themselves.

Westwood and Poulter, the Nos. 4- and 7-ranked players in the world, begin Saturday's third round at 8 under par for the tournament, which is a nice place to be at a major, especially this one. Their names sit atop the leaderboard. They spent quality time in the main interview room. All of their native England cheers for them.

Not bad.

Problem is, that guy tied for third happens to be Tiger Woods.

Woods dresses in the exclusive Champions Locker Room on the second floor of the Augusta National clubhouse. He has won enough green jackets (four) to outfit his own dinner party. And under normal golf circumstances, nobody wants to look in his rearview mirror and see the Tigermobile on the rear bumper.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
AP Photo/Rob CarrThe major record total for Tiger Woods and the two guys who stand between him and the lead at the 74th Masters? The tally is 14 for Woods, zero for Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood.

But these aren't normal circumstances, unless you think Woods winning the Masters after a nearly five-month layoff caused by a sex scandal is normal. It's lots of things -- almost unprecedented, stunning, historic -- but not normal. Not even close.

But here are Westwood, who has finished third in three majors, and Poulter, who won the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship earlier this season, in first place. At 6 under is Woods, plus four other players. If you're Woods, you have a smile as wide as the Hogan Bridge.

Question asked of Woods at his post-round news conference: "Do you like your spot on the leaderboard right now?"

Woods, trying to contain his laughter: "Yeah, I do. Yes."

Duh. Woods loves his spot on the big board. He doesn't have to deal with any of the pressure that comes with sleeping on the lead. Westwood and Poulter have exactly zero major championships between the two of them. And as best as I can tell, there were no sightings of airplanes tugging "Bootyism" banners over the course during Woods' round.

This is what you call a win-win-win situation.

Woods can draft off the leaders. He doesn't fear the two English guys, even though they're both capable of winning this major, or any major, for that matter. And the sex-scandal-related buzz has taken an afternoon nap.

"It feels good," said Woods of his Saturday starting spot. "It feels really good. As of right now, I'm only 2 back. … It feels good to be back and in contention."

I didn't know what to expect out of Woods this week. I'm not sure Woods knew what to expect out of Woods. Anything between missing the cut and winning the tournament seemed like a reasonable guess.

It is the uncertainty of what Woods can or can't do that makes these remaining two rounds so deliciously compelling. Will Woods fall apart like a bad alibi, or does he leave here Sunday with a fifth Masters title and a 15th major championship? Does he become the second player since World War II to make his season debut at the Masters and win? (Hogan did it in 1951 and 1953.)

In his previous four wins at Augusta National, Woods was never lower than fourth on the board after the second round. Helloooooo, he's tied for third.

"You know, I usually put myself in contention most of the time most years here, and this year I'm right there," Woods said. "You know, we've got 36 more holes, and I'm sure the golf course, they are not going to make it easy for us."

You know, if Woods can somehow survive the international fallout of his marital infidelity, I think he can pretty much handle some tucked pin placements on Saturday and Sunday. And what do you think scares him more: a divorce lawyer or the firm of Westwood & Poulter?

So Woods isn't going to lose sleep over the fellas from Worksop and Buckinghamshire, or the four other players he's tied with (K.J. Choi, Ricky Barnes, my pre-Masters pick Anthony Kim, and two-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson -- OK, maybe he notices 14th-ranked AK and No. 3-ranked Lefty).

But on the flip side, ask yourself this: Are, say, Westwood and Poulter, going to lose sleep over Woods? Is there still a Woods intimidation factor?

"We're not up at the top of the world rankings by mistake, you know," said Westwood, who missed out on playoffs at the 2008 U.S. Open and 2009 British Open by a shot.

He's right. Plus, Woods hasn't won a major since 2008 (the U.S. Open) and hasn't won a Masters since 2005. This is his first tournament since winning the Australian Masters on Nov. 15.

"Well, I played with Tiger the last round of the U.S. Open there, so that's not really an issue," Westwood said. "And I learn[ed] a few things, stuff I'm not going to share because I think if you get into these situations and learn stuff, what's the point of passing it on? That's what going through these experiences is all about."

Wait until Woods sees those comments. Or the one where Westwood says he has "the game" and "the temperament" to win a major. Or the one where Poulter says, "There was a lot of talk before this tournament that the English guys are in good form, and they certainly are, and we are sitting at the top of the leaderboard now."

For now they are. But two days, 36 holes and, most of all, Woods still separate Westwood or Poulter from wearing green.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

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