Picking against Tiger Woods to win the year's first major -- heck, picking against Woods to win any tournament -- is like going against the New York Yankees in the World Series. It takes a herculean effort by someone else, and sometimes even that's not enough.
Last year, for example, Chris DiMarco shot a closing 68 while paired with Woods in the last group, but still only managed to tie Woods, who eventually won his fourth Masters in a playoff. But this is not a normal year for Woods, and Golf World's Masters Performance Index, an average of points earned in seven statistical and tournament-performance categories, all weighted by importance, doesn't project his winning a fifth green jacket.
It predicts Vijay Singh will win the year's first major.
The five stat categories used by the MPI (listed in order of importance) are greens in regulation, par breakers, driving distance for all drives, par-5 scoring average and 3-putt avoidance. Performances in the previous four Masters and the first three months of 2006 also were considered.
Two weeks ago, picking Singh to win at Augusta National would have been a ticket to doom. Sure, he played well during the first two months of the year, but he burned himself out with a trip to the Middle East to play Qatar and Dubai and skipped the Honda Classic for much-needed rest and a swing tune-up. He said he wasn't going to return to the PGA Tour until his game reached a point he could be proud of, and, despite a final-round hiccup at The Players Championship last week, the results of his last two starts have been encouraging. He finished seventh at Bay Hill and T-8 at Sawgrass, giving him a tour-best six top-10 finishes this year.
"[At Bay Hill,] I found a few things in my golf swing, and it's all down to rhythm," Singh said before the Players. "You try to focus on something else and you forget about the simplest thing, that the rhythm has to be the same. I'm making putts now. I'm feeling a lot more at ease on the greens, a lot more comfortable [there]. I'm feeling good about my game. Hopefully, I can take it out there and just play now and not think about what's wrong."
Singh made these comments before the final-round 77 at Sawgrass, the one that included five bogeys and one double. He took 116 putts for the week. But like most stars, Singh knows when to get his game in shape, and he won't dwell on one bad round.
"Good players always peak at the majors," he said. "They don't get ahead of themselves. A lot of times guys go up to the majors and really get too excited [before] the tournament starts, and when you do tee off, you kind of feel it. You're too excited, you feel a lull then. But better players, they pace themselves and when they tee off on Thursday, they feel like they're ready to go. That's when they perform their best."
The MPI likes Singh because of his strong start to the year, his power game (distance, par 5s) and his past Masters performances. He won the tournament in 2000 and hasn't finished worse than seventh at Augusta National the last four years.
Phil Mickelson finished a close second to Singh in the MPI. If Woods is the Yankees, Lefty is the Boston Red Sox. After years of frustration, the fan favorite finally broke through in 2004, winning the Masters by one over Ernie Els. The MPI likes Mickelson, the reigning PGA champ, because he's a long hitter who hasn't finished out of the top 10 at Augusta since 1998. In addition, he's strong on par 5s -- nine of the last 10 Masters champs were 6-under or better on the long holes -- and he leads the tour in a complementary category, par breakers, which is the percentage of subpar scores a player makes on all holes.
The major drawback to any statistical evaluation is that it doesn't account for a player's heart. No one has more determination and desire to succeed than Woods, who is third behind Singh and Mickelson. The MPI also cannot estimate the effect Woods' father's illness will have on his psyche. He said being on the course sometimes can clear his mind.
"There's plenty of time to focus out there," Woods said. "Some days are where that's the greatest place to be, on the golf course, away from everything. Sometimes that's one of the tougher places to be. It depends on the situation and the circumstances."
John Antonini is a senior editor for Golf World magazine