The only thing this Masters Tournament buildup was missing to send it into warp drive was a Tiger Woods victory smile.
So much for that omission.
With a declaration of “pure joy” and a similar unprintable exclamation, Woods issued a storm warning that things could get crazy at Augusta National next week.
While fans stampeded behind him on the 18th fairway at Bay Hill, Woods broke a 30-month victory drought in official tour events with a convincing five-shot statement over recent nemesis Graeme McDowell. It was so unequivocally reminiscent of his former glory that longtime critic Johnny Miller went from saying in February that Woods’ best was behind him and he’d never catch Jack Nicklaus’ major records to sending the opposite message from his NBC pulpit on Sunday.
“Watch out, boys on the PGA Tour,” Miller said. “Tiger is back.”
That’s great news for golf and even better news for the Masters. Because Woods is only a piece of the high-end quality that is sweeping through the golf world at the moment.
Half of the top 16 players in the world rankings have won in 12 weeks on the PGA Tour this season, including the past seven consecutive weeks from Phil Mickelson in Pebble Beach to Woods at Bay Hill. Four more have finished runner-up on tour.
Stretch the results of those guys across the world back to the first week in December and the numbers improve to 12 wins and eight runner-ups, including the likes of Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood.
McIlroy, who won four weeks ago at PGA National, is the only one in the world with more world ranking points gained this season than Woods, and he relishes the idea of taking on Tiger.
“I’d love to have a lot of battles with him coming down the stretch, and it would be great to be able to do that at Augusta,” said McIlroy, who edged Woods at PGA National.
Woods and McIlroy will be getting most of the focus when the world turns its attention to the season’s first major, but the depth of contenders is deeper than ever. If you have to settle for the fourth pick in your Masters pool, you’d be satisfied with whichever favorite fell in your lap.
For starters there is three-time champion Mickelson, who obliterated Woods in a head-to-head duel at Pebble Beach and then lost in a three-way playoff the next week at Riviera. Mickelson is spending the early part of this week in Augusta practicing before making his usual advance tune-up in Houston.
“This is kind of where the Masters run starts,” Mickelson said before finishing 24th at Bay Hill. Though he hasn’t broken 70 since the first round at Riviera, he’s never been more comfortable with the most important tool in his bag at Augusta.
“My putting’s been unbelievable,” Mickelson said. “I feel great with the blade. So I’m not worried about the putter and feel like the short game is there.”
The fourth favorite is actually the No. 1 player in the world. Donald very nearly buried the Par 3 jinx last year when he tied for fourth, but he’s been the most consistent golfer in the world over the past two years. While everyone was busy celebrating McIlroy as the new No. 1, Donald reclaimed the crown two weeks later with a playoff win in Tampa.
“I don’t think many people thought I could do that all over again this year,” he said of a season when he spent the most weeks at No. 1, won money titles on the two biggest tours and claimed the Vardon Trophy and player of the year titles. “You know, hopefully I can prove them wrong.”
The green jacket – or any major spoil – is the one thing that still eludes him.
“I would love to win one, obviously, and I’m jealous of all the other players that have one,” he said in December. “I think there will always be a little bit of an asterisk against my name until I win one, but I’ll be trying very hard to correct that.”
That formidable foursome only scratches the surface. Defending champion Charl Schwartzel has been a top-10 machine since the PGA. Former runner-up Westwood won twice in December. Hunter Mahan and Justin Rose won World Golf Championship events in the past month. Reigning FedEx Cup champion Bill Haas defeated two major winners in a playoff at Riviera. The highest-ranked American, Steve Stricker, won the season opener at Kapalua. Last year’s Masters runners-up Adam Scott and Jason Day carry the hopes of Australia.
Safe to say that the days when only a handful of players were considered legitimate contenders to win at Augusta are long gone. The favorites have their hands full more than ever.
Top off the mix with a rejuvenated Tiger and a rekindled quest to catch Jack and the hype grows exponentially.
Woods’ 72nd tour victory gives him a chance to tie Nicklaus’ career mark at Augusta, which would move him a step closer to the Golden Bear’s Masters and majors records.
“I’m looking forward to more of the green jacket part of it than tying Jack, in that regard,” Woods said. “Jack’s had an amazing career and he’s won a bunch of tournaments. But also, he’s won more majors than anybody else, either. So I’m looking forward to my opportunities this year. There’s four of them this year and hopefully I can peak at the right times for all four of them.”
That’s the kind of Tiger talk that’s been missing from the equation for two years. If Woods and everyone else brings their best stuff next week, it could be truly special.