For the first time since he destroyed almost every Augusta National Golf Club record almost 15 years ago, Tiger Woods finds himself in an unfamiliar position heading into this week's Masters. He's not the favorite.
How could he be?
Despite winning four of his 14 major championships at Augusta, Woods has been mired in the longest winless streak of his professional career. His much-publicized swing changes only have been shadowed by his even-more-publicized personal life misgivings.
Can he win? Sure, he's Tiger Woods. Will he win? Impossible to know.
That said, here are five question entering this week's Masters:
Aren't you Tiger Woods?
After each of his five tournaments heading into this week, Woods has appeared to be on autopilot — finishing in the middle of the pack, yet speaking often about improving and the process and the progression. His inteviews have been familiar; his scores, though, have been pedestrian.
Woods may be feeling good with a club in his hand, but his game — and his image as the game's most-intimidating player — have been absent.
After spending 623 weeks as the game's No. 1 player, Woods is fifth in the world rankings. Worse still, for the first time in more than a decade, if you were asked to a pick a winner and given the choice between Woods or the field, more people would pick the field.
So it goes.
What will Phil do for an encore?
Phil Mickelson allowed the golf world to share in a family treasure last year, winning his third Masters title as packed gallery that included his wife, Amy, who had been battling cancer.
It was an emotional, tender moment that transcended golf — and sports — to the point of real-life triumph. It was a real-life drama that on that Sunday in April was flush with happy ending.
And Mickelson's golf was every bit as entertaining, highlighted by a heart-stopping, head-scratching, eye-popping 6-iron from 200 yards off the pine straw and between the trees on No. 13 in the final round that all-but secured his fourth major.
What will he do this year? Who knows, but know this — it will border on the unbelievable. It may be great; it may be awful — either way, Mickelson has become the Masters maestro of magic.
Will the young guns shoot and score?
Golf's young talent pool is almost overflowing, and any number of the talented 20-somethings could breakthrough this week.
It could be Rickie Fowler, the Starburst-dressed hot shot who needs a haircut but lacks very little on the course.
It could be Rory McIleroy, the streaky Irishman who can go low and figures to be a factor in the one major that is more often decide by scoring rather than surviving.
It could be any number of guys, but here's hoping for a big run from Ryo Ishikawa, the Japanese star who has pledged to give his 2011 golf earnings to an earthquake relief fund for his home country. For what it's worth, winning this year's Masters is worth $1.35 million.
Can they drop the “Best to never win a major” tag?
Lee Westwood, please pick up the green courtesy phone.
Westwood has become the de facto pick in every fantasy draft at major tournaments. He's among the world's best players — he's No. 2 in the world behind Martin Kaymer a — and he seems to always be a factor going into the weekend. The could be the weekend he finishes the drill.
Also, look for strong finishes from steady Tim Clark, quiet Paul Casey and sound Luke Donald. Those guys likely won't win, but they are always in the mix at Augusta.
When does the weather arrive?
It seems that weather has had a strong influence on almost every Masters of the last decade.
According to the The Weather Channel, this week appears to be the exception.
Temperatures in the high-70s with a few clouds is the forecast for the entire week.
If the weather stays mild, this could be the most entertaining Masters since, well, last year's Masters.
Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...