- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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The powers that be at Augusta National have done a pretty good job of running their little golf tournament over the years. In all likelihood, it will be business as usual when it comes to plotting the pairings for the first two rounds of the Masters. Outside influences rarely sway those in charge.
With that in mind, it is nonetheless interesting to consider what is taking place when it comes to the players the Masters chooses to put with Tiger Woods for the first two rounds of the year's first major championship.
On the PGA Tour, a computer typically generates the starting times, with players grouped by category.
But the Masters uses the human element to put its threesomes together, and it would be nearly impossible to block out all that has occurred to Woods in the past four months and how it might impact his return to golf.
Although the spectator experience is different at Augusta National, the anticipation as Woods makes his first appearance of 2010 is huge, meaning the atmosphere surrounding his tee time and his group is likely to be surreal.
"I really don't want to be a part of that group and I kind of do in some strange way to be out there with him," said Steve Stricker, a friend of Woods' and successful partner at last year's Presidents Cup. "As far as playing the tournament, I don't know if it would be the healthiest thing for my own game. But if it would help him, I'd love to be there."
As the No. 2-ranked player in the world, Stricker would certainly be a candidate to be in Woods' group.
Only in years in which Woods was the defending champion has he been grouped with an amateur -- the Masters traditionally puts the reigning U.S. Amateur winner with the Masters champ.
And it often puts past Masters winners with other amateurs, a move that would seemingly be unfair in this case.
It is difficult enough to play the Masters. It is difficult enough under ordinary circumstances to play with Woods.
And these are not ordinary circumstances.
So how do you figure out who gets in this attention-grabbing pairing?
"With great care," said European Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie, who did not qualify for this year's Masters. "You'd almost have to ask for volunteers. There's a number of players who will be looking at that draw sheet and will be delighted if they are not playing with Tiger on this occasion.
"But saying that, it is a very controlled environment, Augusta National, very controlled. There are no cameras allowed within the ropes. You see nothing but your opponent and caddies, and your caddie. So it is the most controlled environment possible."
Augusta National is different for reasons other than its unique layout. The fairways are wider than most places, meaning fans are farther from the action. And perhaps most important, nobody is allowed inside the ropes except for the players, their caddies, a television camera man and rules officials.
That is far different than a typical PGA Tour event, where dozens of media personnel often cram close to the action -- at arm's length inside the ropes -- to follow Woods.
The commotion -- photographers jostling for position, the time it takes for everyone to get situated -- can be unnerving if you are not used to it.
"I can speak from experience," said 2003 Masters champion Mike Weir, who was grouped with Woods during the first round of the 2001 Masters. "The first time I played with him in a major was the final round of the  PGA in my second year on the PGA Tour, so I didn't have a lot of experience playing in front of huge crowds like that, let alone the final group of a major. And that was at the full height of his popularity, I would say -- that crazy fan base where they get running and don't pay attention to whoever else is in the group.
"So I guess the biggest thing is kind of being ready for that. And that particular day for me, I just wasn't ready for that -- I didn't know what that was going to be like. I wasn't prepared for it.
"As far as playing with him, he's great to play with. He's very cordial. He's a great competitor, which I always respect. I think it's just more the periphery around that catches guys off guard if you haven't played a lot of golf with him."
Cink played with Woods during the first two rounds last year and was in the same twosome during the final round of the 2008 Masters. The reigning British Open champion has also been grouped with Woods countless times, and has no problem if he is chosen again.
"I'd be OK with it. I've known him for a long time," Cink said. "You have to remember, at the Masters playing with Tiger Woods is always a little different than it is anywhere else, because there's always more of the people that want to see him play there, than anywhere else. And so it's always a little bit different.
"This year, I don't expect it to be a whole lot different than other years just because it's always a little different. There will be more scrutiny and all that, but I'd be fine with it."
The extra attention has made some wonder if the Masters should seek out those willing to play with Woods. Some possibilities include friends of Woods such as former Masters champion Mark O'Meara or other past champions who have little chance of contending but could deal with the onslaught.
Then again, should Augusta National be so concerned about just one player?
It's an interesting dilemma, one that should yield an answer on Tuesday when the groupings and starting times are typically announced.
"Maybe you need some hillbilly like me to do that," said Kenny Perry, who lost in a playoff at the Masters a year ago. "But it will be different, because I'm sure the players will be focused on Augusta, yet focused on what's going on with him, and paying attention to what he's doing out there, too."
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
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