Masters Preview: Someone Has To Ask the Obligatory Tiger Woods Question

ESPN golf analysts Andy North and Curtis Strange, host Mike Tirico and John Wildhack, ESPN executive vice president, programming acquisition and strategy, participated in a media conference call today to discuss ESPN’s multiplatform coverage of the 2011 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. Coverage begins with live SportsCenter reports from Augusta on Monday, April 4, and also will include 4.5 hours per day of first and second-round play on ESPN, ESPN HD and ESPN Deportes on Thursday and Friday, April 7-8, five days and 10 hours on the ESPN 3D Network, extensive coverage on and a special 43-hour Masters tribute on ESPN Classic. Live coverage of Wednesday’s Par 3 Tournament will air on ESPN, ESPN 3D and

A transcript of the conference call follows:

JOHN WILDHACK: “We’re excited about our fourth year. What’s been enjoyable is every year we’ve worked with the folks at the Masters to bring something new and do something that’s additive. The two things this year which stand out are the additional hour on Thursday and Friday on the front end. So as opposed to our live stroke coverage beginning at 4:00, we begin at 3:00 Eastern. I think that’s really going to make a nice difference for viewers because it will give them, as opposed to maybe 30 minutes of a player on a certain day, if they have an early starting time, now we can get up to 90 minutes of that player. So I think it’s going to make a big difference. And I think it’s going to result in more coverage of Top 10 players combined over Thursday and Friday. So I think it’s a noticeable difference, and we appreciate the Masters cooperation in that. The other is all five days are in 3D. In 10 hours of coverage, it will be distributed on ESPN 3D. Last year we broke ground partnering with the Masters to produce coverage in 3D. This year we distribute it on ESPN 3D, and I think again, that commitment and embracing technology will just enhance the enjoyment for the fans of the Masters. The other thing is our coverage in totality, while our focus here is obviously domestic, there will be 16 platforms, ESPN platforms, that will present Masters coverage over the next week in 88 countries. So this is a multiplatform, multi-territory partnership that we have with the Masters, and we very much look forward to a great week. We’re pleased that we can bring these incremental advances to this year’s tournament.”

Q – And Mike Tirico, you’ve been covering the Masters since ’97 for ESPN. What are your thoughts going into next week?

MIKE TIRICO: “Thanks, I’ll just be brief. I’m really excited about next week because quite simply, especially on Thursday and Friday, when you wake up and you know that the place of work for the day is Butler Cabin, that’s a heck of a day if you love golf like all of us do. It’s a day that we savor every year and cherish. The par three’s become wonderful. Over the years seeing Arnold Palmer, Jack, and Gary Player together, who knows how many times we’ll see that going forward. The memories have been terrific just in our first few years of doing this. We look forward to adding to that and working with Andy and Curtis as I have for the last 15 years here has been a treat. It’s great to get our band back together for really just a special schedule of Masters and U.S. Open, and Open Championship with all of us together. Just one quick thought. As we start looking ahead here this week, you always try to figure out who is the favorite, what’s going to happen. I think it’s interesting. The last three Masters champions have not won since on the major tours, the PGA TOUR or the European Tour, Trevor Immelman, and Angel Cabrera, and Phil Mickelson. And if you look back at the last nine guys to win majors, the last nine players, really only Martin Kaymer over in Europe, since he won the PGA back last summer is the only one to win multiple events. For some guys that’s over two years. So what it tells you is forecasting or handicapping who is going to win these majors these days is as difficult as ever. It’s so wide open. I just have a funny feeling that this may be the first time since ’99 that we get a European champion at Augusta when Olazabal won it with such a prevalence of the Top 10 being half European players. So I see that as some of the framework for us diving in with our SportsCenter coverage on Monday and when we get to the par three on Wednesday, and things start for real on Thursday morning.”

Q – Andy and Curtis, I wonder if each of you could address this question about your recollections of 1986, and just your thoughts on what happened there, and the significance of Jack Nicklaus’ victory at age 46?

ANDY NORTH: “I think, first of all, having talked to Jack about this, he went in there, not playing particularly well. You know, actually I believe that week Barbara had put a clipping on his refrigerator of the house they were renting saying Jack couldn’t possibly win here anymore. And he played reasonably well throughout the early rounds, but nothing happened all that exciting.

Then on Sunday, he made a putt for birdie at the 9th hole. And that got stuff started rolling for him. He made some great shots and made great putts. He’s told me since then that once he made the birdie at 9, he sort of got into the mode. He forgot that he was 46 years old. He just got locked into playing major championships and being the best player in the world, playing major championships. He played a spectacular back nine. It was all finished off with the amazing putt he made for birdie at 17. But I think he’s also talked a lot about it was maybe one of his most favorite wins or one of his most favorite because Jackie was on the bag. To be able to share that with your son is really emotional and a tremendous amount of fun.”

CURTIS STRANGE: “Well, yeah, I was like four groups in front of Jack, so I heard the roars on the front of the back side. But I think what I remember the most is as a player if you’re not winning, you finish the round, I don’t care where it is on Sunday, and you escape as quickly as possible. Well, that afternoon I, along with all of my colleagues, sat in that locker room in the player dining there with a lot of press and were riveted to the TV. We didn’t leave. It was truly amazing. I think the one other thing that Andy said was I guess the one last impression that I have in my mind is Jackie and Jack walking off the last green together arm in arm. I think as a father we all can relate to that. I just think at 47 or 46, that was unheard of back then. I don’t care who you were, Jack Nicklaus or anybody. I think back then, 46 would be like 56 today, so it was truly phenomenal what he did. It didn’t surprise anybody, I don’t think, but it truly was phenomenal.”

Q – I have a couple questions, one past, one present. Sticking with the historical theme, Gary Player won his first Masters and became the first non American 50 years ago to win there. How momentous an occasion was that when you look back on it now?

ANDY NORTH: “I think people didn’t know anything about Gary Player really until about that point in time. As a young kid that had traveled all over the world to get to America to play, and then to have a foreign player be able to step up and win, not knowing that he was going to do it multiple times after that. It really changed the way, I think, the world looked at golf in a lot of ways. That was sort of the start of golf becoming much more global. Obviously, in today’s world, and particularly this year’s Masters, you’d be shocked if maybe a foreign player didn’t win the Masters. So it really was the start of a change in golf as we know it.”

CURTIS STRANGE: “That was way before my time (laughing), and I mean that jokingly and seriously. Because when I came up, it was all part of the structure and the fabric of the game. So I was in my best playing days against five of the best players in the world, and they were all European. So it was all part of my make up, so it wasn’t any big deal to me. But I do know, knowing some of the history of the game and loving the history as we all do as players, I do understand the significance of Gary doing that. So he certainly has been a great leader of the game for many, many years.”

Q – Andy and Curtis, real quickly, do you guys have a couple quick thoughts on the field, maybe non traditional thoughts. We know about Phil, we know Tiger’s story, Lee Westwood, et cetera. Is there anything that jumps out at you guys?

ANDY NORTH: “If I jump in there first, I think you have three distinct groups of players this year that you need to pay attention to. First of all, it’s this high ranked group of European players that are terrific players. If you look at them as a group, they haven’t had terrific success at Augusta yet. Lee Westwood contended the last couple of years, but other than that, the other guys haven’t been there. But you have to look at that group of players that are all top ranked, really quality players that are looking for a breakthrough there, and there are probably five or six of those guys.

Then you’ve got the two guys that when they walk, they drive through that gate, it doesn’t matter how they’re playing, their games become very, very good, and that is Tiger and Phil. I think you’d be shocked if one of those two guys didn’t play exceptionally well. There is something about the place. They both love it so much. There is some freedom in their game there that maybe you don’t see some other places. So I think you’ve got the Europeans to look at. Then you’ve got the two old veterans that know how to play the golf course. Then you’ve got this group of young American players that have played exceptionally well this year early on. The Nick Watney’s of the world, the Dustin Johnson’s of the world. Those are two guys and there are another five or six of them. But those two particularly are long, they have played exceptionally well this year, and this is the type of golf course that maybe they can breakthrough on because of the length and the fact that they’re playing so well.”

CURTIS STRANGE: “Let me add that a couple of those players, Mark Wilson. Gary Woodland is incredibly long, young, inexperienced, but incredibly long. Jonathan Vegas, the same thing.

Bubba Watson, don’t forget about him, because he’s matured more in the last year and a half than anybody else on the planet. He’s literally a contender every time he tees it up. But Andy said it best. I think when you summarize what Andy just said, I think the field is very, very even. The only thing I could say could have an advantage is Tiger and Phil, as Andy said, the light switch is switched on when they come through the gate Monday. That means a great deal.

When you’re so successful as a player, as they are, Thursdays and Fridays sometimes are rather boring. You’ve got to do your due diligence early in the week. But Saturday and Sunday is what you play for, but not at Augusta. They come and they’re ready to go from the first day on Monday. If anybody has an advantage, it would be those two. But I think the field is so wide open, and so evenly matched this year. It would be hard to pick anybody in the top 50 who didn’t have a chance.”

Q. – Andy once told me he was far more nervous in the par three contest than he was on the first tee Thursday because those crowds are packed around those tiny greens so much, he knew he was going to beam a couple people that day. Could you both talk about how seriously you approached or how you approached the par three contest in the old days? Did you play it every year? And talk about its recent evolution since TV, it’s because the best kept secret of Augusta, now it’s an incredible TV show on Wednesday. Can you talk about the evolution of that?

CURTIS STRANGE: “Let me answer the latter first for you. It has become a spectacular show. It’s something that, you’re right, the general public didn’t have any idea other than true golf fans that it existed. Now by putting it on TV it has become very, very popular. That has changed a lot over the years. We now have all the youngsters and daughters and sons caddying for these players. In our day, that didn’t happen. Now to answer your first question on did we play or not. My main concern there was being rested and not to overdo it during the week. I played the par three some, but I didn’t play every year, and I didn’t play the years I felt like I had a chance to win because I thought it was more important to play 18 holes. Now I don’t know if all of these players play 18 holes or not, probably not on Wednesday. But I played 18 holes. I’d hit a few balls. I’d spend a long time on the putting green, and then I’d go home. That was my own practice schedule. I think today’s time with the kids you’re almost pressured into playing. How can you get out of the house and home if you don’t say I’m going to play in the par three, and I’m going to caddie for you, dad? Anyway, it’s a great show. It’s a lot of fun for the viewers as well.”

ANDY NORTH: “Personally, I enjoyed playing the par three. I have told Gary (Van Sickle) that story of the very first time I played there, they had a different first and second hole. The first hole was about 65 yards and they had a path for you to walk down through to get to the green. I was scared to death. Honestly, I was afraid I was going to kill somebody because the greens are about 20 feet by 20 feet. Even though you’re only hitting a 75 yard shot, I was nervous.

But the thing I enjoyed so much about the par three courses is the greens over there are the same speed as on the big course. And I liked the idea of going over there on Wednesday afternoon and trying to make a 10 footer, standing over a 4 footer for par, and really grinding on it to knock it in. I thought that was really important. For me, personally, it freed me little bit and made me feel like I competed a little bit this week, and now I’m ready to go on Thursday.

On the other side of that, a lot has been written about the curse. There is one year I made four or five birdies early on, and I put three balls in the lake on six on purpose.”

Q.- I also wanted to ask you, the crystal you’ve collected over the years, where is that right this second?

ANDY NORTH: “We have a couple of china cabinet pieces of furniture that has just about all the Augusta glass we got. I know there are some times that the crystal for eagles was always a big part of it. Unfortunately, I played a lot of Sundays early on where it didn’t make a difference what you’re doing. But you’d look over at the ropes and see your wife telling you hit that driver off the fairway at 15 because you needed a chance to try to get some crystal. And sometimes you’d try stupid shots like that when it really didn’t mean anything.

CURTIS STRANGE: We have a display just in some cabinets, background of cabinets around the kitchen and things like that. So it’s very, very nice what they do. It’s always been a great side benefit for hitting a couple of good shots.“

Q.- So you’re not drinking your orange juice for breakfast out of that stuff any time ever, huh?

CURTIS STRANGE: “No, no, no.”

Q. – I guess somebody has to ask the obligatory Tiger Woods question. From what you’ve seen from the first three or four events this year, what are you seeing in kind of the evolution of his swing? Do you think it’s in position to make some hay at Augusta?

ANDY NORTH: “I think first of all he’s been very inconsistent. We’ve seen him play a handful of good rounds and a handful of bad rounds. But I think it changes when he gets to Augusta because he feels so comfortable there. As far as the golf swing, from what I’ve seen, and I haven’t been up there close and watch him hit balls, just a few shots on TV. He’s working on some things that will be positive in his golf swing. I like that he’s starting to get his left arm in a little different position than he’s had it in. I know he’s hit some horrible shots. When you’re on the golf course and making major swing changes, you’re going to hit some goofy looking shots and he’s hit some of those. I think Tiger’s close enough that all it takes is having a good feeling about Augusta. Having some confidence there. If he were to go out and shoot 69 the first day or maybe even 70, I would think that would be the round that would give him a lot of confidence. Once he starts playing well, I think you’ll see him play well a lot.”

CURTIS STRANGE: “I think that he’s in transition right now. Trying to incorporate these new moves into his own body and his swing. But let’s be honest, he’s going to pop out of this. Once he gets more comfortable on the golf course and in his life, I think he’s going to pop out of this, and it could happen next week. We just don’t know yet. He hasn’t been playing very well. He doesn’t have my vote as the clear favorite next week. Simply because the proof is in the pudding in the way he’s been playing. But he’s going to pop out of this. When he does, things will seem like old times.”

Q. – Of the other two groups, kind of the three groups that were mentioned earlier, the Europeans and the young Americans, any hunches as to which might be more likely than the other to rise up next week?

ANDY NORTH: “I think if you look based on world rankings, the group of European players are really, really good players. They’ve all got a lot of confidence right now. But length has such a huge impact of playing well at Augusta. So many of these players we’ve talked about in those two groups really don’t have good track records there. That’s important. Experience around Augusta National is very important. Understanding pins to shoot at, pins not to shoot at. That stuff that sometimes it takes you a while to learn. If you go back and look at how soon a player won at Augusta. Very seldom does it happen in the first two or three years. Usually the players get into their fourth, fifth, sixth year before they figure the golf course out. But pure length really makes a big difference. And some of these younger players now, not just young Americans, but you throw a Rory McIlroy in there, the guy hits it a mile. These guys hit it so far could something happen like Tiger in 1997 again? It might. Some of these guys are that long that if you got on a great driving week, you have a great opportunity to hit a sure shot on these greens and make a lot of birdies.”

CURTIS STRANGE: “To follow up on what Andy was saying, nobody is a top player that doesn’t launch it now. Maybe Mark Wilson might be a little bit of an oddity, that he’s not a launcher of the golf ball. But to answer your question, without a doubt, Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood have more experience and are the cream right now over our young guys. That’s just because of Kaymer’s record in the last two or three years and number one in the world. Lee Westwood has been certainly a consistent player and just hasn’t come through. That shows I would think he’s extremely hungry. I think right now the three Europeans have an edge over our young guys.”

Q. – We have Virginia Commonwealth in the basketball final four. Do either of you have sort of a one sweeper, one potential Virginia Commonwealth in this tournament?

CURTIS STRANGE: “I’m going with this. I’ve had this guy on my mind for a couple of weeks now, and he actually played pretty doggone well last week, Mark Leishman. Is he even in the field. That’s what I want to know.”

ANDY NORTH: “That would be important to know first. I just think the world of this guy’s golf swing. I don’t know.” (Leishman is not in the Masters field yet)

CURTIS STRANGE: “To answer your question of a VCU type, I don’t think VCU has a chance to win Augusta National, to answer your question. Oh, a guy, a rookie or high ranked player that just gets in the Masters, that would be an interesting comparison how big an upset that would be to win the Masters and VCU to win the NCAA. I honestly don’t think either one is going to happen, but it would be comparable.”

ANDY NORTH: “So much is experience around Augusta, which we both talked about. For a player in his first year or even second year going in there, there is so much going on around you. It is so difficult to really understand the magnitude of the event. Going back to my first year at Augusta. I opened up a 66 on Thursday. I walked off the 18th green that day and thought, well, shoot, I’ll win 6 or 7 of these things. I love this golf course. It was perfect. It was a day I had the ball below the hole on every hole by mistake sometimes you didn’t have a clue what you were doing. The second round on Friday, I played almost the same way and had it on the wrong side of the hole every single hole. Spun it off the bank on the 15th green and shot 81, and literally didn’t feel like I hit the ball much differently. And that is the difference on that golf course understanding how to get it around. That is why it’s almost impossible for a VCU to win.”

Q. – Those two par 5s on the back nine are crucial on Sunday, which you kind of learned the hard way in ’85. I’m wondering, could you sort of walk us through what happened and what you were thinking at that point? Then after if you would give me the recap on whether that helped you win the U.S. Opens a couple of years later? Whether that hardened you up or smartened you up or whatever it did?

CURTIS STRANGE: “So, I was playing very well. I did exactly what Andy just said. I shot 80 the first round, was really, really playing well. Made a couple bogeys, tried to get aggressive, tried to make birdies. Short sided myself six or seven times, got frustrated and shot 80 and probably lost interest. The next day I just happened to get something going when there wasn’t much pressure. Anyway, to make a long story short, I came to 13 with a couple of shot lead at that time. Maybe, two, I believe, and I felt like I drove it perfectly and felt like I hit it without the green, because I felt like I had to keep making birdies because Langer was playing well in front of me. I hit it in the creek and made six. Then 15 was I hit a real good drive, and I hit a good 4 iron and it wasn’t enough club. So as happens at Augusta National on Sunday afternoon. We talk about Jack Nicklaus and his backside in 1986, and the flip side of that coin was me and my one chance to win Augusta. So there is a lot of excitement, and a lot of just heartache and disappointment.

I played, I thought, pretty well on Sunday. Just didn’t play well enough on those key holes. You’re so right in that they’re so key. You have to play them well to win there. Not only on Sunday afternoon, but also on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Because you just felt like especially for an average length player like I was, I had to take advantage of the par 5s. And I made two bogeys and you just can’t win there Sunday afternoon making two bogeys. What did that do for me? I don’t know. It probably hardened me, and you get a little taste of playing well in a major. I think it makes you hungry. It’s just the next step in the maturity of a player, I think. It hardens you to where you don’t lose your concentration, or the next time you know how your body’s going to react to that type of pressure. I’d won a few tournaments at that point, and it was nothing like the pressure on the backside of Augusta. Nothing like it in this world other than the three other major championships. I’m not going to say it was good for me, but I think I learned my lesson as well.”

Q. – We talked about Tiger, but what about Phil the defending champ coming in here? Also struggling with his game a little bit. You don’t see the two of them as the two favorites?

ANDY NORTH: “I think that Phil at Augusta National looks like a totally different player than he does at any other major championship. I don’t know if it’s just a confidence factor, or he has so much confidence in his short game or whatever. But his swing looks so much freer when he’s at Augusta National than any other place he plays. Yes, he hasn’t played very well yet, but I really don’t think that’s that big of a deal. I understand he was in there Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday working. He’s going to play Houston this week. If he makes the cut or not, I don’t think it’s really that important to him. As a player, you always want to play well going in there. But I think he has such a good feeling and so much of what he’s doing right now is preparing for that tournament. I think that’s something that people might not understand. There were tournaments two and three weeks before the Masters that I would start practicing the shots that I want to hit there. You try to hit a really high 3 iron, anticipating a second shot at the par 5 15th, that type of shot. Sometimes you might play that shot when it isn’t the smartest shot to play. It affects your scoring in that tournament a week or two beforehand. But I do think he’s got to be a favorite there. He’s played so well there lately. He has such great feelings for that golf course, and the golf course fits perfectly to his length and everything that he likes to do there. So, even though he and Tiger haven’t played exceptionally well, I still think both of them will be there Sunday afternoon.”

CURTIS STRANGE: “Phil prepares differently than anybody I’ve ever known. It is about a certain goal out there. I would think he’d plan this week in Houston to make sure he’s competitively sharp for Houston. And he goes in there early. And when he goes into Augusta National for two or three days, he really works at it. He doesn’t just play with the members and drink a couple beers afterwards. That is something that is the new age preparing for Augusta and some of these majors that we never did. We never went into Augusta early. The only guy that I know of in my day before was Jack Nicklaus. A lot of these guys go in a couple of weeks before for a day or two just to familiarize themselves with the place, to where they get there Monday and Tuesday of tournament week they know what to expect. I think it’s a hell of an idea. I wish we had done it. But I think Phil will be fine. I really do. He’s shown that he doesn’t have to be on top of his game to play well there in the past.”

Q.- We’re talking about a rookie’s chances to win here. I believe there are 11 players in this field that have qualified by winning a Tour in the last year. Other than the distractions that you mentioned, what is it specifically that makes it so difficult for a rookie or first year player to contend at Augusta?

CURTIS STRANGE: “For me, I think it’s different for everybody. But for I was first year as an amateur, so forget about that. For first year as a professional who has played well on Tour, that’s what we’ll talk about. It’s the excitement. You’ve grown up thinking about it. You have to calm yourself down. You have to make sure you don’t overdo in your two to three practice rounds where you’ll be almost tired by the weekend. You have to prepare that way as well. And I think most of these guys understand that, but there is such an excitement every day to go out and play and practice and want to do too much. The other thing is mainly the golf course. It is a very, very much a local knowledge golf course. It’s not so much where to hit it as where to miss it. You have to know how to go at certain hole locations, when to go, when not to go. When you’re playing perfect golf, you get away with some of those aggressive plays. But when you’re not playing perfect and you make some of those plays, you won’t win there, because you’ll hit it to where you cannot get it up and down. I can go through all 18 holes and tell you there are certain places that you cannot afford to hit it if you’re going to win the golf tournament.”

ANDY NORTH: “I think you are going to, no matter how well you play there, you’re going to put yourself in a position that you’ll have no idea how fast a putt’s going to be. Or you’ll have no idea what the chip shot’s going to do until you’ve done that and you’ve had that particular putter, that particular chip a bunch of times. Because of that, you’re going to make more mistakes having not gotten around that golf course. I think you so look forward to playing at Augusta. When you finally … I know when I first qualified for my first time, I thought about that for nine months before I got there. So you put so much pressure on yourself to play well, and you’re so excited about it that you really don’t have much of a chance before it even starts. Even though you’re playing pretty well. I know there were some times when I went there and I felt like I was swinging beautifully, and sometimes that can be the worst thing that can happen to you there. Because if you think you’re hitting it so well, now you start shooting at pins you shouldn’t shoot at. That’s when it kills you. I like going in there playing reasonably okay, but not great, where you still had a little bit of fear in there and you maybe went to a little wider part of the green or shot more toward the middle part of the green. I think that is the circumstance you play well there. But it takes years to figure that out. You can’t do that your first time around.”

CURTIS STRANGE: “The frustrating part of all of that is that it looks so simple. When you go in there the first day or two and see it for the first time, the simplicity of Augusta National is I think what lulls you to sleep.”

ANDY NORTH: “I agree. It seems like the speeds get more on Thursday than on Tuesday. And the pins you’ve been practicing to are maybe a little flatter area than they actually got placed on a Thursday or Friday. It really blows you away as a player how much the golf course can change from a Monday Tuesday, to a Thursday Friday as far as speed and firmness.”

Q. – In your times playing there, can you talk about something that you enjoyed just by going there that had nothing to do with actually playing the course or a tradition or some sort of perk or privilege that you guys got there?

CURTIS STRANGE: “I just think that when I went there, from day one to the last time I ever played there was I got to go to a place that we play every year since the inception of the game. The ghost the ghost is the wrong word, but the memory of Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, and some of the old past champions that would come back and play practice rounds and most of them would play the tournament. The Sneads and Nelsons would hang out on the practice tee with you, hit balls with you, trash talk with you. That’s what made it more special than other majors. They hang out, they enjoy hanging out, and it shows. That’s what made it special to me.”

ANDY NORTH: “I think that’s something that happens there that doesn’t happen in the other championship events you’re playing. And that is the gallery is so knowledgeable. They so understand the history of the event. They are so well behaved. They are dressed exceptionally well for golf tournaments. I mean, there is that part of it that really makes it special. It means so much to the players to be there and having a chance to play, but when you look at the folks who have paid their money to come in and watch, they care about it as much as the players do. And that doesn’t happen at many events you play in. There is such respect for the game, and respect for the player who have earned the right to be there. I talked about my first year and how I played really well on Thursday and terrible on Friday. Walking up the last hole, I was so embarrassed the score I was shooting. Yet people still clapped for you. I mean, that is something you don’t get any other place. I think that just adds to the history and the tradition that we all loved about it.”