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The Conversation: Tiger Woods and The Masters

Each week here at the Toy Department, two Baltimore Sun staffers will engage in a segment we like to call The Conversation, where they'll swap e-mails with one another and debate something that is in the news. Today, Kevin Van Valkenburg and Rick Maese discuss whether Tiger Woods will win the Masters (he tees off today at 1:52 p.m.), and why some scribes are ready to hand him the green jacket before he tees off.

Maese,

So, my friend, the Masters begin today, one of our favorite sporting events of the entire year, and I must confess, I'm having a little bit of deja vu. Every Masters, it seems, we're told that it looks like THIS year really could be the year that the planets align and Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson finally have that legendary duel we've always anticipated but never quite seen materialize. Will it finally happen this time?

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A few years ago, I floated the theory that if you like Tiger, you're a Beatles guy, because he represents excellence and arrogance (John), creativity and artistry (Paul), risk-taking and the fierce desire for privacy (George) and he's kind of a goofy-looking guy who married a babe (Ringo). And if you like Mickelson (who, by the way, married UP too), then you're an Elvis guy, because as talented as he is, and as fun as he is to watch, he's also self-destructive and flawed in a way that inspires both loyalty, even when he goes all Heartbreak Hotel on the 72nd hole, but also snarky jokes. Every year we want to see them go up against one another, and every year, one of them is just a little off his game. I so want to see it happen but I suspect I'll be let down yet again by one of them.

Since you're a big Beatles fan, let me throw this to you: Why are so many people already more or less conceding the tournament to Tiger? That kind of hyperbole drives me insane when it comes to him. I know he has four green jackets, and he stole a win from Sean O'Hair at Bay Hill two weeks ago, but he hasn't won at Augusta since 2005, and he's only won one green jacket in the last six chances. Sure, he's a smart pick, a safe pick, but to act like it's a foregone conclusion is absurd. To jump from music analogies to comic books, Tiger isn't Superman, despite what some people would like you to believe. He's more like Batman. He's going to do remarkable things, but he's also going to take his licks sometimes, too. He's not invincible. (Yet Sports Illustrated is writing this week -- as if it's a real possibility -- that he could tie Jack Nicklaus' record if he wins the Grand Slam this year. Puh-leaze.)

The Masters has changed since Tiger used to tear up the course in the early part of this decade. The rough (excuse me, secondary cut) makes a big difference, and if you're not accurrate with the driver, you're going to have a tough time. I actually think Mickelson and Tiger are both going to let us down this year. They'll hang around the top 10, but neither will be in the final group on Sunday. (Tiger will have one round where he shoots 73 and the CBS crew will stumble all over itself making excuses for him.)

I've never been down to Georgia to smell the azaleas or walked the emerald green hills of the National, and since you have, I'm wondering if you could describe the experience a little so I can live vicariously through you. Is it as awe-inspiring as we make it out to be? And do you think the tournament is less fun than it used to be without the back-nine birdie charges? Since I've already written off Tiger and Phil, let me throw this out there: my pre-tournament pick is Geoff Ogilvy, the smooth-putting Australian. Not exactly going out on a limb, since he seems to be the trendy dark-horse outside the obvious duo, but anyone else you think can make a run?

I predict this e-mail exchange will be a tradition unlike any other,

KVV

KVV,

First, that was a great job of mixing in references to the Beatles, Elvis, Superman and Batman all into a few paragraphs. While it might help our Google hit numbers, you've also driven away most of our female readers who now think you're Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. Second, do not bother me on Sunday. I will not be answering my phone. I will not be hunting for colored eggs. I will have to TiVo Sunday morning mass. My day will be spent watching Tiger and Phil battle it out in the final group. I will not accept it any other way.

My pick to win this weekend is the same as my pick to win every major: Tiger. I don't see the sense in ever picking against him. Eldrick holding a putter on 18 is like Harry Potter waving his wand with Voldemort all up in his grill. Look, I've seen this movie before -- caught the sequels, too -- and I'm taking Tiger. In fact, allow me to make my 2010 prediction now, too: Tiger. Wanna know who I think can fix our economy? Tiger.

I don't pick him each year because I'm a crazed die-hard fan or because I have his face tattooed on my ankle or anything (seriously, I don't. Not on my ankle.). I do it because I know the weekend will be fun if Tiger is in contention and because he's proved me wrong enough times where I've long ago vowed to never pick against him. It's made my job tricky at times. Let me try to explain.

One of the final images I have from my visit to Augusta last year is of Tiger driving away from the clubhouse in a golf cart. Trevor Immelman -- a guy who's already due for a VH1: Where Are They Now? special -- was still on No. 18 as Tiger took his place in a dark brown Buick SUV. Tiger's jacket was black, not green. Now Tiger had lost other majors. He'd lost other majors when I was certain he'd win. (In fact, watching him fail at Winged Foot a couple of years ago reminded me of when my first-grade teacher let slip that there was no Santa.) The great expectations are my problem, not his. I can freely admit this. Put me in that large category of fans that flip on the television and feel a bit disappointed if Tiger isn't near the top of the leader board. No disrespect to any other golfer in the field this week, but if you have a seat in the arena, you want to see MJ on the court in the fourth quarter, you want to see Favre get the ball back with 2 minutes to go, you want to see the slugger stroll to the plate with two outs in the ninth. And I prefer to see Tiger in the final group on Sunday.

That said, if Tiger announced his retirement this morning because he'd prefer to be Obama's chief corporate endorsement specialist -- Did you see that Kumar is leaving acting to work in the White House? WTF? -- I would still tune in all week and I'd still be pretty jacked come Sunday morning. It's too good of a tournament ... excuse me, toonimunt. My memory isn't great. But so much about setting foot at August National last year feels very vivid today. The colors, the mist, the smells, the egg salad sandwiches. My first stop was the same as most people's. A fellow columnist and I made a bee-line for Amen's Corner. I could've spent the entire tournament there. In fact, I wish I was there right now. Maybe I'll wear my 2008 press badge around the office. Anyway, it's because of these reasons that even if Sunday's final group includes Adam Scott and Anthony Kim -- two guys I always like -- I won't leave my seat. Unless it's to make an egg salad sandwich during a commercial.

Wondering if we'll see Elin before Sunday,

Maese 

Maese,

Here is the thing about Tiger that, I guess, sums up my feelings: Perfection annoys me. And Tiger, frankly, annoys me. It's like debating art vs. science. I appreciate science. I'm even in awe of science. Science is necessary for our survival. But I love the messy imperfections of art. And yes, while Tiger can be an artist when the plan goes awry -- the famous chip on No. 16 in 2005 being the perfect example -- for the most part, he's a tactician, not a poet. And I like poetry.

It's not that I don't want him in the final group on Sunday. I really do. And when he's anywhere near the lead, I'm watching. What I want is for him to earn it. I don't want Stuart Scott telling me T-Dub is going win 30 majors dawg, I want to see Tiger earn it. Rick Reilly wrote a column about Tiger recently and it included a quote from Jack Nicklaus that I thought put it perfectly:

"You guys are all so willing to just hand it to Tiger: Greatest Player Ever, like it's over already," Nicklaus said. "And he'll probably wind up as that. But he has to do it first, doesn't he? And that means getting past all the injuries and things that can bite you. His swing has a helluva lot of torque in it, doesn't it? And he's going to have kids, right? There's gonna be a whole lot of times when he'd rather be at his son's football game or his daughter's dance recital. I'm just saying, the kid is amazing, and I'll be the first guy to congratulate him, but doesn't he actually have to do it first?"

I like the chase. I don't want to be told how the movie ends. I'm the guy who, if he misses the first episode of a TV show, he refuses to start watching until the DVD comes out. Why? Because I want to go on the entire journey. I don't want to skip ahead and be told how it ends. We live in a society that constantly wants instant perspective, instant analysis. Five minutes after Tiger beat Rocco Mediate on one leg, ESPN wants to declare it the Greatest Performance in the History of Golf. (Never mind that Ben Hogan won the U.S. Open little more than a year after a car accident that nearly killed him.) It's infuriating. Instead of pretending that Tiger wins every single tournament he enters (he doesn't) and that he's already the greatest of all time (he's not; until he gets 19 majors, it's still Nicklaus) can't we just enjoy the ride?

And while Kumar may have felt moved enough to leave his cushy TV job on House and join the Obama team because he believes in what they're trying to do, the idea that Woods would ever take that kind of principled stand is laughable. (Republicans buy drivers too. A lot of them. In fact, Tiger might even be a Republican.) I'm not one of those sportswriters who complains that Tiger doesn't speak out for civil rights or get involved in political causes -- frankly he can do whatever he likes, and his opinions are his business -- but it bugs me that everything that comes out of his mouth sounds like it was run past a focus group and market-tested for "likability" by Nike and Buick. Michael Jordan is really to blame for this, but he and Tiger have, between the two of them, inspired an entire generation of bland athletes who see themselves as corporate CEOs worried about offending shareholders. You know why Michael Phelps speaks in a revolving door of cliches? Because he grew up watching Tiger and Jordan pass off blandness as insight on SportsCenter.

Since you brought up Adam Scott and Anthony Kim, I think it's time to point out the obvious: Where are Tiger's true rivals? Can you imagine how many majors Nicklaus would have won if Tom Watson and Lee Trevino hadn't come along? Mickelson has won three majors. Watson won five bloody British Opens! All Scott has done is make my wife swoon over his Burberry outfits and Aussie charm. His putting is putrid in big moments. Kim had a fancy Ryder Cup and wears fancy belts. How about he steps up and competes in a major now.

See we're both boxing fans, how about this: I think Tiger is more like Lennox Lewis in some ways. Yes, he's a great fighter, but who was around to challenge him?

Lastly, speaking of Harry Potter, is it ok to talk about how hot Emma Watson is now that she's 19? I think she's gotten way too hot to play Hermione. No way would Harry be rolling with Ginny Weasley if Hermione looked like Emma. Harry was as good at Quidditch as Tiger is at golf, and yet Ron wasn't even the equivalent of Mickelson. Ron was more like the Zach Johnson of Quidditch, and yet he gets the girl? No way.

KVV

KVV,

Interesting question re. Hermione. I could answer simply by telling you that you're a perv. But I think if you want a more nuanced explanation -- and you can apply this trick to any female, not just 19-year-olds -- ask your wife what she'd think if you brought Hermione home.

OK, enough with your pursuits of passion and back to Tiger's. I think you might have answered one of your own questions. Predicting a Tiger win or celebrating his dominance isn't spoiling all the things that can happen over 72 holes of golf. It's merely casting the intrigue in a different shade. The question each week isn't really "Will Tiger win?" but "Can someone beat Tiger?" You still tune in Sundays, regardless of what Stuart Scott says and regardless of whether he's won 14 majors or 19. You tune in because you want to see whether he'll creep closer to Jack, but also to see if someone else -- a legend like Singh or a John Daly impersonator like Angel Cabrera -- can keep him from winning.

So while we predict a Tiger victory on the first tee box on Thursdays, the question we all monitor the next couple of days is always the same: "Who else could do it?" For seasoned golf writers, there's a pattern to covering a tournament like this one. Early in the week, you write about Tiger. The first day you write about how the course plays. On Day 2, you write something on the leader. Maybe you do that one Day 3, too. But you don't usually focus too much on Tiger until the weekend because you know he'll be there. Why waste a good story, a good angle and good quotes early in the week, when you know you'll be writing about him on Sunday anyway? So you advance the final round by writing "Tiger is in the hunt," and you're golden no matter what happens on Sunday. Either Tiger wins another jacket or another trophy... or someone beats Tiger. For a writer, they're both good stories to write.

So who beats Tiger this weekend? You're right in asserting that Tiger has no true rival. I think there was this great desire for Phil to step into that role. And while I'd still love to see Phil-vs-Tiger on Sunday, after watching Mickelson last week in Houston, I wouldn't bet on it. Tiger's only true rival is the field. It's not him versus a single player; it's him versus everybody. And that's where the intrigue lies each week. Will someone step up from the field, and who will it be? Vijay? Goosen? Ogilvy? To me, it doesn't matter. If he had a true rival -- if our hearts were really set on a Phil-Tiger duel -- there'd be disappointment. I'm curious in the Tiger vs. Everyone Else matchup. And Tiger fares pretty well in that competition.

I approach it like a big horse race. Sometimes there's just the heavy favorite and the field. And if you're just a fan, lean on the favorite. If you want to make money, though, you got to pick something out of the field. Let me ask you this: You're a worldy guy, you've covered Australian swimmer Stephanie Rice... so when are the Aussies gonna step up? Appleby has had a couple of good showings, but why is this tournament so tough? Do they spend too much time thinking about shopping and not enough time working on putting?

Still can't believe Phelps reportedly hooked up with Stephanie Rice,

Maese

Maese,

I don't have to tell you, I love all things Australian. I've been there twice and can't wait to get back a third time. It's like America, except with about 1/10th of the people and cooler accents. I worry that the whole country might be a little too laid back to take down someone like Tiger. Adam Scott and Stuart Appleby should hire Stephanie Rice and Paul Hogan as life coaches, sort of like how Mickelson has Dave Pelz and Rick Smith (and now Butch Harmon) to work on various aspects of his game. Rice -- shown here in her fancy yellow knickers -- is about as cutthroat as a shark when she dives into the pool. And you know Crocodile Dundee is calm under pressure. If I were covering the tournament, that's the angle I'd take: What can Australian celebrities do to help out their countrymen? Where is Colin Hay when Aaron Baddeley needs him?

Personally, I think Vijay is done. He doesn't putt well enough to win a Masters. Neither does Sergio Garcia. I sort of feel bad for Sergio at this point. He went from being the charismatic, care-free kid who looked Tiger in the eye and didn't blink when Tiger was desperately trying to win his second major to being an excuse-making whiner who throws temper tantrums on the course.

I think we keep forgetting that Padraig Harrington has won the last two major championships, and that if he wins the Masters he'll be one victory away from the Padraig Slam. If I were him, I'd be loving the fact that everyone has already handed the green jacket to Tiger. It would make the Guinness taste that much better when he snatches yet another improbable win.

KVV 

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