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Woods vs. world: Who's your money on?


AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Let's say, for argument's sake, that you were going to bet a nickel on the Masters, which begins today at Augusta National, and your choice was Tiger Woods or the rest of the field. Which would you take?

The mere fact that you have to think about it says more about Woods than the many feats, statistics and compliments he has piled up on his way to becoming the world's best golfer.

One man against the rest of the field? One guy taking on 94 elites invited to play in the year's first major tournament?

Until Woods came along, such a bet would have been immediately dismissed as preposterous. Didn't matter who the golfer was. Not even Jack Nicklaus in his prime was a smart bet against those odds.

Nicklaus has won more major titles than any other golfer in history, but his success rate is barely above 10 percent. That's the way golf works -- or rather, always worked until now.

The game was considered too competitive, too evenly matched, too similar to baseball, a sport in which seven failures in 10 at-bats is exceptional.

But now, with Woods dominating as no golfer has since Byron Nelson won 11 tournaments in a row against watered-down fields at the end of World War II, one- against-all is a legitimate bet.

So legitimate that Woods -- a 9-4 choice to win this week, according to British bookmakers -- just might be the smart play for that nickel.

Going back to the PGA Championship last August, he has played in 13 tournaments, won eight and finished second in three. That's right, only twice in his past 13 starts has he not finished first or second.

That's basically the same as a major-leaguer batting .500 at the All-Star break. Unheard of. Ridiculous. Impossible. A violation of the game's standards and practices.

But now, a reality.

"The way Tiger has played over the last six or eight months is better than I ever played at any point," Nicklaus said yesterday.

Quite a statement from a golfer who has won 94 pro tournaments, including 18 majors -- 16 more than Woods.

"Right now, no one else is at his level," Nicklaus added. "He's so far in front. They said the same thing about me sometimes, and guys always came along and competed [well] with me. Lee Trevino and Tom Watson did a pretty good job of carving me up at some majors. That'll probably happen with Tiger. Some kids will come along to give him a run for his money. But right now, maybe the ability is there [among his rivals], but they haven't raised their level."

True, Woods has done most of his winning against weekly PGA Tour fields that don't compare to what he'll face this week, with Europe's best, Greg Norman and a bunch of dangerous, old hands added to the mix.

And while the addition of rough and the narrowing of fairways at Augusta National -- changes made in the past two years, in the wake of Woods' 12-shot win in 1997 -- haven't hurt Woods, they have helped others.

"The concept of the course itself has changed greatly," Nicklaus said. "Now it's more like a U.S. Open course."

A course on which fewer chances are taken. A course favoring caution and accuracy off the tees more than length.

That's not necessarily a home-court advantage for Woods, who hasn't broken 70 in eight rounds at Augusta since winning the event three years ago.

"But [the course] still favors guys who hit it long and high," Woods said.

And that's Woods?

"Last time I checked," he said with a smile.

Trying to dope it all out ahead of time is impossible, of course. A year ago, no one thought Spain's Jose Maria Olazabal had any chance coming in, and he rolled to his second Masters win. Woods finished tied for 18th as the heavy favorite.

Woods figures to be closer to the lead this week, but with Hal Sutton and Darren Clarke having beaten him recently, who knows how things will wind up?

This much is certain: Woods has been blowing the sport away, and this is the tournament he has pointed to all along, the one he really wants. "I've been targeting this," he said. "My game has been getting better week by week. I'm excited about some of the shots I'm hitting now and some of the control I have. I've been working hard to get to this point, and it's nice to see the fruits of some good, hard labor."

The sound you hear is two-thirds of the field passing out after hearing Woods speak so confidently. That's one of the big trends this year, Woods' rivals cowering when he bears down on them. Poor Davis Love III almost conceded before taking on Woods in the match-play championships in February.

"Tiger will play well this week. He's just too good now," Nicklaus said. "Who else will play well? Some other guys, probably."

So, there's your bet: Tiger Woods, reigning king of the world, against "some other guys, probably."

Is there any doubt where the nickel belongs?

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