Focus finally on Tiger's game

Golf, at last, is again about birdies and bogeys.

On the course, at the year's first major. Not the ones on the Tiger Woods mistress scorecard.

It has been 144 days since the Woods we knew, or thought we knew, last played golf. He won the Australian Masters in mid-November, the last time he came out on the good side of anything.

It's been a wild ride watching the deconstruction of a sporting icon and while it's not over -- and for some, it may never be -- he will at least get some respite as he goes in search of a fifth green jacket.

The Tiger Woods conversation will finally go back to golf, the only place he can feel comfortable.

It's strange to think that he could feel safest with the eyes of the world upon him, as they inevitably will be on Thursday afternoon, when at 1.42 p.m., in the second to last pairing of the day, he'll hit the most anticipated tee shot in history.

But between the ropes and with a club in his hand, he's in his element. It's where he can, after all, have some control on his destiny.

Winning may be the universal solvent, but whether Woods can find redemption in a Masters victory is another question.

It's a stretch to think Woods can win.

I don't think his game is where it needs to be. He's undercooked, as one of his inner circle admitted.

"He's improving with each day, but he's not there yet," I was told.

It's not surprising given Woods' inconsistent play during his practice rounds here.

His swing under Hank Haney has become high-maintenance. It's not a coincidence that in recent years he's played better later in the year, when his swing's grooved and the courses are firm and fast so he can take 3-woods off the tee instead of the driver that gives him fits.

That said, he's still the best player in the world and he can contend here with something far less than his A game.

Last year, he slapped it around with what he called a "band-aid swing," played the closing hole at 3-over for the week, made no putts to speak of, and still finished only four shots out of the playoff.

Woods has 10 top-eight finishes in 13 appearances at Augusta as a professional, but does he still have that legendary intimidation factor?

"If you want to talk about if he had an aura ... the first couple of times I played with him, I was pretty blown away by the whole thing," said Geoff Ogilvy.

"If there was any level of intimidation -- and I'm only speaking for me; I don't know what everyone else feels -- but for me, especially if you were playing the back end of a golf tournament, the intimidation was that you kind of knew he was not going to hit a bad shot.

"You don't know that about any other player out here, because every other player out here has done something wrong in the last few holes at some point. And if you feel like the guy you're playing against is never going to do anything wrong and is going to play great, if you know he's going to make a 30-footer on the last, that's intimidating.

"If he starts coming out and playing well and winning again, I think it will remain.

"I think if he let a tournament or two go, and he isn't the same for some reason, which I can't imagine why it would be true; but if it does, then I think the intimidation might go away a little bit."

"But the last nine holes of Augusta will be the same if you stand with him on the 10th tee tied for the lead, you feel like you have to play well to win, and I don't think that will be any different from 2009, in 2010."

But if not Woods, then who else?

Augusta's thrown out some dark-horse winners recently, from Zach Johnson to Trevor Immelman to Angel Cabrera, who prevailed in last year's playoff.

If I were a betting man, I'd look at Lee Westwood to continue the lineage of surprise winners. The Englishman's playing well and with confidence. He's not always kept his head at the pointy end of tournaments but at some point, it'll happen for him.

Retief Goosen won two U.S. Opens, both on courses where the greens were closer to linoleum than grass, so he can putt and hold his nerve. His putter's not been his friend for a few years but four top-five finishes this year says his game is back.

Another South African, Ernie Els, has two wins, recapturing the kind of form which made him Woods' natural rival almost a decade ago. And Padraig Harrington's chances can't be discarded, either.

Quiet achiever Steve Stricker may be the best putter on Tour and if the course plays as hard and fast as it seems, a medium-length hitter like him will have a chance at hitting it close enough to make birdies.

Phil Mickelson's always a threat at Augusta, though he hasn't been playing well. It seems his wife's health issues -- she was diagnosed with breast cancer last year -- may be more on his mind than a third green jacket.

"I asked Phil, I guess at Bay Hill, how Amy was, and you know, he gives me the OK. But who knows what that means?" said Stricker.

Stricker's the No. 2 player in the world but he betrayed just what a chasm exists between him and the top dog when he was asked whether he'd told Woods that he wanted to take over as No. 1.

"No," he said, "There have been other guys that have done that, and it's really not worth it."

While many doubt Woods can win, his peers aren't ready yet to discount him.

"Yes, I do," said Ogilvy when asked if Woods could win. "We've spent 15 years, again, underestimating what he can do. I have 100 percent confidence in his ability to win the tournament. Not saying he's going to but I think he can."