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Aside from Woods, what's on our minds as the Masters gets under way

Baltimore Sun

What passed for a juicy storyline last year was whether Masters officials had sapped all the joy from Augusta National with the addition of trees, a second cut of rough and 400-plus yards.

Turns out, they hadn't. Chad Campbell, for one, played his first 16 holes in 9-under-par.

This year's top storyline does not involve alleged Tiger Woods mistresses named Jamie and Jaimee or Rachel and Raychel. Not directly, anyway.

But the major question heading into today's opening round is simple: How will Woods play? Will a layoff that spanned the length of the college basketball season leave him as rusty as a 20-year-old wheelbarrow?

Here are other key questions:

•Is the Tiger mystique a thing of the past?

Jack Nicklaus dismissed that possibility, saying, "[Players] see Tiger on the leaderboard and they start worrying about Tiger."

But others say Woods' marital issues prove he's human. Plus he didn't win a major last year, got cut from the British Open and blew a final-round lead in the PGA Championship to Y.E. Yang.

"Guys don't see his name [on the leaderboard] now and say, 'It's over,' " two-time PGA Tour winner Hunter Mahan said. "In 2000, when they saw his name, it was over."

Even Woods said winning isn't everything - or the only thing.

"It's not about championships," he said Monday. "It's about how you live your life."

Will a hangover afflict several favorites?

The Houston Open prides itself on Augusta-like conditions that make for a perfect warm-up event. But several big names hope their play in Houston is not a predictor of things to come.

Ernie Els tied for 44th. Phil Mickelson shot a second-round 76. And Padraig Harrington closed with a 77. Ugh.

Steve Stricker, in his final Masters preamble, slogged through a 79-74 weekend at Bay Hill.

"My focus was not good," Stricker said. "Hopefully, I got those shots out of my system."

Can Fred Couples pull a Watson?

Tom Watson came within one stroke of winning the British Open at 59. Perhaps that's why people are giving Couples, 50, a legitimate chance this week.

That, and he still hits it a mile. Many of his drives rolled within a few feet of Woods' during their practice round Monday. And Couples has won three times in four starts this season on the Champions Tour.

"He's coming into this tournament with championship trophies under his belt, holding on to these big, glass, crystal things, as well as huge checks," Mickelson said.

Couples' take? The 1992 champion said winning would be a "pipe dream."

Who will be the low Molinari?

Edoardo has the height, a 3-inch edge over younger brother Francesco, who stands 5 feet 8. Francesco, 27, is also shorter off the tee. "But he hits a lot of fairways and greens," Edoardo, 29, said recently.

Whatever the edge in skills, the Molinaris will become the first brothers to compete together at Augusta National since Jumbo and Joe Ozaki in 2000. There have been 26 other sibling rivalries on display during the Masters.

Could the weather be a factor?

Indeed. It's expected to rain tonight. That could make the course play even longer than usual and spell trouble for relatively short knockers such as Stricker, Luke Donald and Mike Weir.

Was Tiger serious about dialing down his emotions?

Woods said as a consequence of being more respectful to the game - for example, fewer flying clubs and f-bombs - he will try to "not get as hot" when he plays.

"I'm not going to be as exuberant, either," he said. "I've made a conscious decision to try to tone down my negative outbursts, and consequently, I'm sure my positive outbursts will be calmed down as well."

So, have we seen the last Woods fist pump?

"No, no, no," Woods pal Mark O'Meara said. "He's still going to show some emotion."

NOTE: Masters chairman Billy Payne had harsh words for Woods, saying: "As he now says himself, he forgot to remember that with fame and fortune comes responsibility, not invisibility. It is not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here; it is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grandkids." Payne also asked: "Is there a way forward? I hope yes. I think yes. But certainly his future will never again be measured only by his performance against par, but by the sincerity of his efforts to change. I hope he now realizes that every kid he passes on the course wants his swing but would settle for his smile. I hope he can come to understand that life's greatest rewards are reserved for those who bring joy to the lives of other people."

The 74th Masters When: Today-Sunday

Television: Today-Friday, 4 p.m.-7:30 p.m., ESPN. Saturday, 3:30 p.m.-7 p.m., chs. 13, 9. Sunday, 2 p.m.-7 p.m., chs. 13, 9

Site: Augusta National Golf Club

Length: 7,435 yards

Par: 36-36 - 72

Purse: To be determined ($7.5 million in 2009)

Field: 98 players (six amateurs)

Cut: Top 44 and ties, and anyone within 10 shots of the lead

Defending champion: Angel Cabrera

Last year: Cabrera became the first Argentine to win the Masters, closing with a 71 and winning on the second hole of a three-man playoff that included Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell.

Return of Woods: Tiger Woods is playing for the first time since revelations that he had repeatedly cheated on his wife. When he tees off today, it will have been 144 days since he last hit a competitive shot.

Words from Woods: "The major championships have always been a special focus in my career and, as a professional, I think Augusta is where I need to be even though it's been a while since I last played."

On the tee: Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer will hit the ceremonial first tee shot.

Key statistic: Tiger Woods has finished out of the top 20 at the Masters only once in his pro career.

Noteworthy: Anthony Kim and Ben Curtis are the only Americans out of 22 players who qualified through the world ranking.

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