I KNOW THE suspense is killing you, so—surprise!—I'm picking Tiger Woods to win the Masters. The good news is, I'm pretty sure they're still going to hold the tournament even though everyone outside the Mickelson and Singh households expects Tiger to be wearing green.
What concerns me is something that should worry every player heading to Augusta: I've never heard Tiger speak as confidently as he has this spring. Stevie Williams, his caddie, said last year that Tiger's best was yet to come, and I think I heard Tiger say the same thing. What does that mean—another 10-stroke walloping in June at Torrey Pines? Frankly, I'd feel better about Augusta if Tiger were more like me and complaining about his putting.
If Tiger's best is really coming, maybe it's time to grab Toto and hide in the storm cellar with Auntie Em. I'm out here trying to make cuts, and this guy is winning every week. I know how hard it is to win on Tour. The other 143 guys—great players like Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh—aren't chopped liver, yet Tiger is beating us like we're five-year-olds swinging toy clubs. Winning isn't easy, but he's making it look that way.
I know one thing that sparked Tiger's once-in-a-lifetime run. (I'm trying to do what Bob Rotella says and stay optimistic.) Tiger has moved closer to the ball at address, which makes his swing plane more upright. That really tightens up his action and has helped eliminate loose shots.
I could be wrong, but I'd also swear that Tiger has shortened his driver and three-wood. Tiger's driver simply doesn't look 45 inches long anymore. (Don't forget, he used a 43-inch steel-shafted driver for years before upgrading to an oversized graphite-shafted club in 2004, when, coincidentally, he began spraying more tee shots.) It's easier to get a shorter club back in front of you, and you'd be surprised how much accuracy you gain by chopping off even half an inch. Tiger clearly has more control this year. I bet he shortened the driver and simply didn't tell anyone. At Bay Hill, I noticed that Tiger nailed a good drive at the 6th hole in the final round and was only 10 yards past Sean O'Hair.
One last take on Tiger: Who's going to putt Augusta's mean greens better? Tiger's the best putter in the world. It's as if he has robot hands—no flinching. When he misses, it's usually because of speed or a misread. One thing Tiger knows is that his putter is always going to be there for him. Every player on Tour wishes he could say the same.
As for the others, I think Vijay Singh has a chance now that he's back to a regular putter, which is what he used in 2000 when he won the Masters. If he uses his belly putter in Augusta, I give him no shot. There are too many short putts with a lot of break at Augusta, and you lose feel on them with a belly putter. Vijay isn't a great putter to begin with, but he cancels that out with his ball striking. I think he can win another major, especially a Masters.
I'm not sure that Augusta suits Steve Stricker, our annual comeback player of the year. He's a great putter but not a big spinner of the ball. Strick has kind of a flat ball flight, which might not be great if the greens are firm and fast. Plus, he might not be comfortable winning the Masters. The U.S. Open or the PGA would suit him better, and he has had chances to win both.
Ernie Els remains an enigma to me. It was nice that he won the Honda Classic, but then he drops out of Bay Hill when he has a house nearby and could've driven to the course. Ernie has a lot going on, especially given his son's autism, but I don't see his three-year plan to become No. 1 panning out. A lot of people would like to see Ernie in a green jacket, though.
Nobody talks about Angel Cabrera, the U.S. Open champion, but he plays Augusta fairly well. He's as strong as an ox and hits it nine miles and is a terrific iron player. He is terribly underrated, even after winning at Oakmont. I think Angel will finish in the top 10 and maybe contend.