Commentary

Tiger Woods at Augusta? Don't bet on it

Originally Published: April 5, 2011
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- There are lots of ways to waste money. You could invest in Donald Trump's latest business franchise: House of Comb-Overs. You could book Barry Bonds to speak at your flaxseed oil convention. You could buy the latest basketball instructional DVD: "Shooting -- The Butler Way."

Or you could bet on Tiger Woods to win this week's Masters.

This hurts to say. As you know, I regularly pick Woods to win the Masters. Then again, I regularly pick Woods to win the U.S. Open, the British Open, the PGA Championship as well as the Oscars, the Grammys, the Final Four and various congressional races.

But Woods hasn't won a major in nearly three years. He hasn't won a minor on the PGA Tour since September 2009. He's undergoing a swing change and a life change at the same time.

None of this stops the oddsmakers from making Woods a 10-1 favorite to win his fifth Masters title. They love a good sucker bet, and plunking your hard-earned Washingtons or Benjamins on Woods would be exactly that. The only way he'll get another green jacket this week is if he dyes one himself.

Incredibly, Woods was the favorite until Phil Mickelson won at Houston a few days ago and the betting money began pouring toward Lefty. Makes sense. Mickelson just went 16 under par this past weekend and arrived at Augusta National as the defending Masters champion.

Woods has no such momentum. He's like a caffeine junkie trying to find an open Starbucks. He has dropped to seventh in the world rankings, trailing Mickelson for the first time in 14 years. And he hasn't won here since 2005.

During his annual State of the Tiger address at Augusta National, Woods was asked some steak-knife-pointed questions about the state of his game. You never would have heard these in the old days -- the old days being 2008, when he won the U.S. Open on one leg.

Question: "Do you feel you're ready to win this week?"

Woods: "Mm-hmm."

Or ...

"Have we seen the best of Tiger Woods?"

Woods: "No."

"Do you still believe you will [break Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major victories]?"

Woods: "Mm-hmm."

In a very polite way, people were asking Tiger whether he was washed up. He smiled -- sort of -- while answering, but you can believe that he seethed at the suggestion of his vulnerability.

His peers are even tougher on him. Ian Poulter told the Chicago Tribune that Woods not only wouldn't win the Masters but wouldn't even finish in the top five.

"Well," Woods said, "Poulter's always right, isn't he?"

Memo to the golf gods: Please let Woods and Poulter be paired together Saturday or Sunday.

The 2011 Tiger still thinks he's the 2006 Tiger. He isn't. He doesn't intimidate the rest of the field anymore. The world's No. 1-ranked player, Martin Kaymer, long a Woods defender, said Tuesday that Mickelson has surpassed Tiger as the most dominant player at Augusta.

All of it is true, of course. Phil has won three of the past seven Masters. And more than a few of Woods' fellow pros think his swing change is a golf disaster.

Mickelson preceded Woods in the media center and charmed them all. He was funny, mocking his 1-inch-vertical victory jump after winning here in 2004. He was poignant, discussing his annual drive down Magnolia Lane and his admiration of boyhood idol Seve Ballesteros. He was newsy, disclosing that he saw a back specialist Monday evening because he plans to swing out of his shoes.

Woods wasn't any of those things. He had yet another opportunity to let his guard down. Instead, the deflector shields were powered up and operating at full capacity. He was pleasant. He was polite. He was professional. But there was zero warmth.

Then again, nobody asked Phil whether his golf game sucked. And nobody tried to bait Lefty with a question about fining players for using four-letter words.

If he asked -- and he never would -- I'd tell him to lighten up. The world isn't against him. The media in that room Tuesday weren't against him. Golf fans, golf writers, pro golfers, pro tours, TV networks, Phil Knight's company ... everybody wants Woods to play well again. It's a matter of simple economics. When Tiger wins, so does golf.

If Woods wants to invent enemies, that's fine. Poulter is probably a good place to start. But the real opponent is often Woods himself.

He wants to be the guy to beat this week. Instead, he's the guy to doubt.

"I just want to be a part of that action and let the chips fall where they may," said Woods, who craves to be in contention late Sunday afternoon. "I just need to be part of that action."

The competition junkie needs to win. And he will.

It just won't be this week.

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. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

MORE COMMENTARY

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter