Wednesday, April 9

Tiger's game clicks with Augusta
By Andy North



AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Newsflash: This is a very, very important tournament for Tiger Woods.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods has a way of using his length at Augusta that few can replicate.

He has a chance to do something that's never been done before. No one has ever won three straight Masters Tournaments, and Woods has that opportunity this week.

''I think it would be huge to win three Masters,'' Woods said. ''No one has ever done it before. And I've been able to do certain things in golf that no one has ever done before. If you're ever in that position, you want to take advantage of it, because it doesn't happen all the time.''

It's far from a foregone conclusion, but in his mind, he already sees it happening.

Generally, when Woods makes a big deal about something and wants it badly, he either accomplishes it or comes pretty darned close. He's focused on it this week and you can bet he's going to be at his best, and the other guys are going to have to deal with it.

Woods has won three times in eight tries at The Masters, and has two other top-10s here. What's the secret to his Augusta success?

It's a course where it's very important to be in the right places, and Tiger understands that better than anybody. He has great length, and can use his length as well as anyone who's ever played the game.

He's also very comfortable at Augusta. If he plays the way he thinks he can, he expects to win. Back in 1997 -- when he ran away with the title by 12 strokes and set records all over the place -- he killed the par 5s, hitting driver-wedge or driver-9-iron into the greens. Obviously, that won't be the case this week because of the soft conditions, but he seems to do some things to the par 5s that some other players can't, even though they're just as long.

They keep talking about making the courses harder for Tiger, but every time they add length it makes it easier for him as compared to the rest of the field. It's a golf course that's going to play very long, but most players would rather play it soft than when it gets real firm and fast.

International flavor
A record 39 international players are in the field this week, and you can probably expect that number to increase in the future.

From 1966 to 1999, no more than 27 foreign players were entered in any one single Masters, but in the last three years that number has been over 33. Why the sudden increase?

Golf has grown so much around the world in the last decade. There are so many great international players, and the advent of the World Golf Championships four years ago has made it a lot easier for someone not playing in the United States to make the top 50 in the World Ranking -- one of the Masters' qualifying criteria -- than it used to be. So many events are now based on the World Ranking, so we're seeing an increasing number of foreign players in the mix.

Among the foreign players in the field, I think South African Retief Goosen has as good a shot as any to take home the green jacket. The 2001 U.S. Open champion has played great golf around the world over the last three years, and he finished second here last year after sharing the 54-hole lead with Woods.

Padraig Harrington is another international star coming into his own. Very much under appreciated and underestimated, the Irishman is a wonderful player who's only getting better. That being said, I'm not so sure under these soft conditions this is the type of golf course that he'd play his best on. He'd much rather have this fast and firm. He's not a bomber.

Two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North is a golf analyst for ESPN, and will be covering The Masters all week.







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