Odds are Woods has work cut out for him

April 10, 1997|By John Eisenberg

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Can Tiger Woods win the Masters in his first professional appearance at Augusta National?

Sure. Absolutely. At this point, with Woods living up to his hysterical hype, who's to say there's anything he can't do?

But will he win here this week?

Well. Now. Let's not get too carried away.

It's certainly the result to root for; watching him slam-dunk a field of jealous rivals in this legendary bastion of exclusivity would be one for the permanent VCR collection.

Just think about Lee Trevino changing his shoes in the parking lot because he refused to set foot in the clubhouse, and you can begin to comprehend what a victory by Woods, 21, would symbolize.

But the chances of it happening are longer than the 8-1 odds established by Las Vegas bookmakers.

For starters, the chance of any golfer winning any tournament are longer than 8-1. There is just too much competition, particularly at a major tournament, with all of the world's best golfers playing.

Nick Faldo's cunning presence alone doubles everyone else's odds in a major. Greg Norman can tell you all about that.

And Augusta National is no place for a youngster to break through; it's a tricky, venerable place that rewards patience and experience above all other qualities.

Only once since 1935 has a golfer won the Masters in his first pro appearance. That was Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.

Among the big names, Norman tied for fourth, Tom Watson tied for eighth, Arnold Palmer tied for 10th, Jack Nicklaus tied for 15th and Faldo finished 40th in their first pro appearances here -- not bad, but not the winner's circle.

Woods is younger than all of them were, as well as two years younger than the Masters' youngest winner (Seve Ballesteros in 1980) and 11 years younger than the average age of all winners dating to the first Masters in 1934.

A hip-hop place, this isn't.

That's not to say Woods can't do it. He has finished in the top five in nine of 17 events around the world since turning pro, with four wins. This year, he has broken par in 18 of 23 rounds on the PGA Tour.

Moreover, his stunningly long game is a great fit for Augusta. This tournament is all about putting, about navigating the slick, undulating greens, and Woods hits the ball so far off the tee that he will hit shorter irons into the greens than anyone else -- shorter irons that should lead to shorter, more makeable putts.

Yes, he is still a streaky putter more than a wizard on the greens, but he will have the chance to score well if he nails the 8-footers he surely will see.

It all comes back to the amazing distances he hits the ball off the tee. Just how far? Consider that Gene Sarazen won the tournament in 1935 by holing a 4-iron from the fairway on the par-five 15th, and Woods hit a 9-iron from the same spot last year.

That's long.

Of course, Woods hit the ball just as far when he played here as an amateur the past two years and did nothing. He tied for 41st in 1995 and missed the cut last year, playing a total of six rounds in which he failed to break par once.

But he was still an undergraduate at Stanford then, and unable to prepare as fully as he wanted. He took exams the week before coming to Augusta.

This time, he prepared for the tournament by shooting a 59 at his home course in Orlando, Fla.

Woods' penchant for such jaw-dropping theatrics is perhaps the best argument for picking him to win this week.

He has shown himself to be one of those athletes who doesn't blink when others do, who performs that much better as the challenges get tougher. Witness his closing rounds of 63 and 64 at Pebble Beach earlier this year, and his near hole-in-one to win a playoff with Tom Lehman at the Mercedes Open.

Augusta National is a magical place that seems to encourage such bold strokes. Something remarkable happens here almost every year. Last year was Norman's Sunday-round collapse. Two years ago was Ben Crenshaw's emotional victory just days after the funeral of his mentor, Harvey Penick.

There are a number of emotional currents running through this year's tournament. Norman's return to the site of his collapse. Palmer's return from prostate cancer. But the most electric of all is Woods' first appearance as a pro in a major tournament.

It comes as he is changing the face of his game, multiplying interest, doubling gallery sizes, introducing a rampant diversity that was once thought impossible.

A victory here would seal his legend as one of those athletes who does what others don't.

It's not fair to expect it of him; myths take years to develop in golf, the cruelest game.

But wouldn't it be something to see?

Pub Date: 4/10/97

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