By Steve Silverman
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This is supposed to be the Tiger Woods show at the Masters this week.
It may very well be, because he is playing exceptional golf and he looks like the Woods of old.
When you win three tournaments before the end of March, you know your game is intact.
Woods reclaimed the position as the No. 1 golfer in the world, but that accolade is not his top priority. Woods wants major championships the way that Warren Buffett craves information.
That’s basically the only thing that matters to Woods.
His stated goal is to catch Jack Nicklaus, who won 18 major championships in his career. Nicklaus, of course, is the top golfer of all time. Those who support Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead and Bobby Jones can make arguments, but Nicklaus was the best of his time — or any other.
Woods knows that the only way he can make his case is to bypass Nicklaus.
Woods has been stuck on 14 since winning the 2008 U.S. Open in a dramatic playoff fight with Rocco Mediate.
Since then, his personal life went to hell and back, his knee was damaged and his golf game fell apart.
All have been rebuilt and that’s why he is the favorite at Augusta.
However, even though he is playing sensationally and he seems to have his mental edge back, it’s not going to be easy for Woods.
There are at least four golfers who figure to give Woods a strong fight and could keep him from putting on the green jacket for the fifth time in his career and the first time since 2005.
Brandt Snedeker is probably the least sexy name on the list, but he may be Woods’ biggest threat. Snedeker has won two tournaments and nearly $3 million in prize money this year. After finishing second in back-to-back tournaments in late January and early February, he came back with a victory in the AT&T Pebble Beach Open.
Golf fans of a different generation remember that tournament as the Bing Crosby Clambake.
Snedeker has the all-around game to challenge Woods for four rounds and beat him with his execution. Snedeker is not a long hitter, but he is an accurate one. If Woods misses with his driver from time to time — as he has done in the past — Snedeker is going to put serious pressure on him.
Phil Mickelson has not always fulfilled expectations, but he has proven that he can win at Augusta. Three of his four majors were won at Augusta, and the course sets up for the lefty because most of his shots have left-to-right action that mimics the design of the legendary golf course.
Mickelson is playing well this season and has already won a tournament. If his putting is on, it could be a spectacular duel with Woods.
Mickelson will regularly go for the difficult shot, and that has often been his undoing in big tournaments. He almost never takes the safe route and he is unlikely to ever change his go-for-broke game plan.
Rory McIlroy was the top player in the world last year, but he has struggled in 2013. McIlroy is coming off a second-place finish last week at the Valero Texas Open, but he has not strung four excellent rounds together on the tour.
McIlroy has so much talent that it could happen at any time, but he has been frustrated with his game throughout the year.
Defending champion Bubba Watson is also in the mix. Watson and Dustin Johnson probably hit the ball further than any golfer on the tour, and if he can keep it in the fairway as he did last year, Watson has a chance to repeat.
Watson appears to be at home at Augusta, and he seems to have as much charisma as any golfer on the tour — with the exception of Woods. This is definitely a “home game” for Watson, and the Georgia locals will be roaring their approval if he is in contention on the final day.
Woods believes that this is his tournament to win. However, the competition is formidable and the task is intimidating.
The spectacle and the theater should be dramatic this weekend.
Who’s your pick to win the Masters? Will Tiger put on the green jacket yet again? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…