Paul Azinger on the Masters: I Think He Returns to the Tiger Of Old

ESPN golf analysts Andy North, Curtis Strange and Paul Azinger and host Mike Tirico participated in a media conference call today to discuss ESPN’s multiplatform coverage of the 2012 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. Coverage begins with live SportsCenter reports from Augusta on Monday, April 2, 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 5-6, five days and 14 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 ESPN3. A transcript of the conference call follows:

MIKE TIRICO:  It’s year 5 for us, and I’ll repeat what I’ve said the other years.  There’s no greater thrill than knowing that your place of work for the week is not just Augusta National but you go to Butler Cabin to work for the couple of days that we’re on Thursday and Friday and the par‑3 on Wednesday has been so well received over the first four years, so look forward to returning to all of that, and our golf schedule is small in terms of numbers, but the best in terms of stature.  We get to cover this great tournament, the U.S. Open, the Open Championship all four days, and work the first day of the Ryder Cup.  So we’re pretty fortunate to have that schedule.

For that small a schedule in terms of number of events, to have three major champs and all guys who have been there, done it and know the TV route with Zinger, Curtis and Andy, it’s a pleasure, and once again, it seems like every year we top this, but look at all the story lines in 10 weeks, Mickelson, Woods, Donald, McIlroy all winning.  The hot guys are hot.  There’s no shortage of story lines, so we look forward to another phenomenal few days at Augusta National.

ANDY NORTH:  I want to go on what Mike was saying, the fact that the two top players in the world, Rory and Donald, and then Phil and Tiger winning, any time you’ve got Phil and Tiger coming into this event playing well, I think it’s potentially one of the most enjoyable Masters to cover going back maybe seven or eight years when we had that time frame when Phil and Tiger and Ernie and Goosen and Vijay were all at the top of their games coming into the Masters playing exceptionally well.

I think it’s going to be that same kind of feeling there, that you’ve got the guys that you want playing well playing well; that’s really special.  And any time you get to Augusta, for me as a player, the Masters is really the start of the golf season.  We had a lot of good tournaments before that and a lot of guys are grinding to do their thing, but it always felt like this is what we’ve all been getting ready for, and to go there with the excitement and the idea that from this point on you hit a bunch of majors coming up, and really the teeth and the meat of the schedule was coming, and I always looked forward to getting to Augusta mainly because of that.

CURTIS STRANGE:  Well, ditto to whatever everybody said.  I just think that it’s always exciting to go there, and it was very exciting as a player, as Andy said, and it’s exciting to go as a TV guy, mainly because I don’t have to hit it off those side‑hill lies and putt those greens.  It’s just more relaxing than having to do that on some of the holes, some of that pressure.

Thinking back, we’ve all thought a lot about this game in the last ten days, since Bay Hill, and I think it’s exciting because this is the first Masters post‑scandal.  This is the first Masters that’s going to be nothing but golf, and I like that.  And I think that the landscape has changed a great deal, which we’ll probably go into in a moment with questions, but it’s going to be a good week.

PAUL AZINGER: I’m pumped because I think honestly this is going to be one of the most anticipated Masters in a long time, and really I think the whole Tiger Woods winning at Bay Hill was huge.  He’s going to be the most confident player in the field.  He’ll probably come off as a favorite ahead of Rory McIlroy and whoever is ranked ahead of him.

I think the anticipation is pretty big for this event, and these guys said earlier, with McIlroy and Donald and Mickelson and all the top players being red hot, I think we look forward to a great event.

I think that Tiger Woods still is the big draw on this Tour obviously.  I’ve said all along I thought the Tour was kind of a two‑show pony, and Tiger was one and Mickelson was kind of getting a half and then the rest get a half, but I believe that dynamic has changed a little bit now with McIlroy playing the way he has and Luke Donald becoming the type of player he has become.  There is a lot of anticipation for this Masters.  Tiger with the convergence of his physical and mental aspect to him now.  You think about it, as Curtis alluded to, the kind of post “it hit the fan” with Tiger Woods, he finished fourth two years in a row at Augusta really where his head wasn’t in the game, and he had a bad left knee and he was in the midst of a colossal swing change.  He still finished in the top 5 at this event.

Who knows; he’s coming in the most confident player, and if his mind is like it was at Bay Hill and he’s physically even close to where he was, he might run off and hide from this field.

Q.  For any of you, can you talk about Rory and his past year starting in Augusta with that final round, what you’ve seen in him, going on to win the U.S. Open and then winning a couple weeks ago in Palm Beach?  Maybe you could address Rory’s season going into the Masters.

ANDY NORTH: First of all, I thought the way he handled the meltdown last year at the Masters was spectacular.  He stood there and took it like a man, and I think that’s very important.  And because he handled it so well, it helped him grow as a player immensely.  We forget how young he is.  He’s just a kid yet.  He handled that exceptionally well, much better than we’ve seen some veteran players handle defeats like that.

And I think it really helped him once he got to the U.S. Open.  We saw there what he can be.  He has beautiful technique.  He has tons of confidence, his putting has improved dramatically over the last 18 months working with Dave Stockton.  So I think he’s the total package.  I always thought that he was the next No. 1 whenever Tiger relinquished that reign.  So I think he’s handled it exceptionally well, he’s had a lot of things on his plate over the last year, and he’s still a young guy.  He’s still growing in how he handles this stuff.

But I think he handles it exceptionally well.  You forget sometimes that he is 22 years old.  I’m looking forward to him playing at Augusta.  I think his game fits the golf course unbelievably well, and I think he’s the kind of guy, we got so used to Tiger just playing well week after week after week when he was at his best, I think Rory is the kind of guy that when he is at his best, he can beat all these guys, and he might do it for a two or three‑week period of time, and then maybe he won’t be in contention.  I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.  I think when he gets it going, he’s maybe as good as we’ve seen in a long time.

Q.  I’ve got a course question which I’ve already asked Andy North this question so I’ll direct it to Curtis and Paul.  When people talk about what it takes to win a Masters, what comes up most often is putting and the difficulty of the greens, but it seems to be true that if you don’t play the par‑5s well, you don’t have a chance, almost no matter how well you putt on the other holes.  Would you guys agree with that?

CURTIS STRANGE:  I think that the first mandatory requirement now is length.  Now, it doesn’t mean you can’t be a medium‑sized hitter, but you have to be so exceptionally sharp that week that you are giving up a lot, and Augusta, you’re giving up a lot on the par‑4s, but especially on the par‑5s.

You know, the par‑5s, if you can get it on all of them in two, which the big hitters can, it is such an advantage, and it’s not only an advantage because of your length, it’s an advantage because of the height and the shorter irons.  You’ve got a shorter club you’re coming in that you can get it up in the air and stop it on 13 and 15 and 2 possibly.

So the strength factor is huge at the Masters.  It always has been, but especially in the last ‑‑ well, since they lengthened the four or five holes.

The par‑5s, as you said, are so important.  They always are.  They’re important every week.  But even more so because of the way the game has changed.  And also the length off the tee allows you to come in with shorter irons into these big par‑4s, much shorter than other hitters, and it’s just such an advantage there because now you can control the ball on the green better, especially when they get hard and firm and fast, and just strength rears its head so many ways at Augusta that makes it so advantageous to hit it a long way.

PAUL AZINGER:  I agree, the par‑5s are ‑‑ you think about it, you’ve got Schwartzel who’s not a bomber, Mike Weir, Zach Johnson were able to win the Masters not really killing the ball off the tee, but wasn’t it Zach Johnson that was famous for laying up on all the par‑5s but his wedge game was sharp.

Tiger Woods for his career is something like 1,800 or 1,900 under par on the par‑5s, and he’s only about 40 or 50 under on the par‑4s, and he actually might be over par on the par‑3s for his career.  So Tiger’s made a career out of killing the par‑5s. Augusta’s par‑5s are really the ‑‑ they’re the major scoring holes.  They’ve added a lot of length, a little bit of rough and a bunch of trees.  So accuracy plays a little more of a part.  It’s not just the bomber’s paradise that it once was, but you’ve still got to get the par‑5s.

Q. Now that Tiger has won at Bay Hill, I want to ask everybody if they think the chase for Jack’s record is back on, if they ever had doubts that it was off, and maybe just to illustrate how difficult it might be, is there anybody on the landscape who has four more majors in them besides Rory?

ANDY NORTH:  Well, I think if you look at the young players, I think that Rory has a chance to win multiple majors.  But until you’ve done it, you don’t know.  And so many of the younger guys looking for that first major championship that until that get that one, that’s probably the hardest one.  Once you get that, then you at least sense that you can do it, you’ve done it, that sort of thing, so I think he has the potential to win multiple championships.

You look at Luke Donald’s game and you think this guy does everything so well; he’s got a great short game; he’s got a game that should do well in major championships, but up until the last year or so, he really hasn’t been even involved in the talk at any of the majors.  So getting that first major is so important.

You know, can Tiger do it?  I always felt like if he got healthy, he had a chance.  You know, a lot of people wrote him off right away when he struggled for a while.  Every great player we’ve ever had and seen in our game has gone through a period of time where they’ve struggled, a year, maybe a season’s worth or a couple of years even, and they get it back together.  Look at what Vijay Singh accomplished after 35, look at what Steve Stricker has done after 35.  There’s a lot of wins out there for him.

You’ve got to be lucky to be playing well at the right times and at major championships, but I always felt, and I don’t know if Curtis and Paul felt this way, I always felt like going to a major championship was maybe easier to win than a regular event, at least in my mindset it was, because it eliminated so many players because either the difficulty of the golf course or the mental strain that gets put on players that week.

So I think because Tiger is so tough mentally, it looks like he’s getting healthy again, it looks like he’s starting to get his mind organized well again, I think he’s got a great opportunity to win multiple more major championships and see if he can catch Jack.

PAUL AZINGER:  And I agree with that.  The whole thing with Tiger, the emotion ‑‑ I talk about the emotional side of what happened a lot.  I’m one of the believers that says that he’ll still break the record if he’s physically fit.  However, there was this mental hurdle that he had to get over.  You know, the worst human emotion is shame, and he was ashamed of himself.  He brought shame on his family.  And then you have kind of the heartache of it all, and then there becomes anger at all the people that make jokes and make fun.  Those are real emotions, and it’s difficult to overcome that.

Sometimes your family won’t let you get over the shame of something.  It happens in many levels.  It could be alcoholism or something.  It could be a million things.  It could be divorce.  It could be anything.  But the person has to be able to forgive himself, as well, and I think that ‑‑ to me I think Tiger has gotten to that point where I believe the people he’s surrounded with have gotten beyond the shame of what happened.  I believe that winning at Bay Hill for Tiger has taken him beyond that point where he’s been able to forgive himself.

And that to me, if Tiger can get to where he was mentally ‑‑ he didn’t separate himself from the rest of the players on Tour because he just always hit it better.  He made more putts more often, and the physical part of it is superb, don’t get me wrong, but there was a place mentally that Tiger went to that no one else has seen except maybe Nicklaus, the elite of the elite, and that’s where Tiger has taken himself.  The stuff has been jumping in Tiger’s head in that second and a half that it takes to make a golf swing that wasn’t in there before the accident, before it hit the fan for him, whatever it was, he didn’t have that at Bay Hill.

And if he brings that mental mindset that he had at Bay Hill the rest of the year, I think he returns to the Tiger of old.  I mean, the sky’s the limit for him.

He said something ‑‑ Tom Renaldi asked him a question, and he asked was it different for you, Tiger, leading with a chance to win than it was previous, in the however many days since he’s won.  Tiger said no ‑‑ the all‑time cliché is that we take one shot at a time.  Well, he said that differently.  He said, I had a game plan ‑‑ he said it was no different basically Saturday night going into Sunday.  “I had a game plan, and all I wanted to do was try to get the ball where I wanted it to go.”  That’s just a different way of saying one shot at a time.

For him when he said that to me, I listened to that, and I thought, you know what, it was no different for him, and he’s done it more than anybody that plays the game today.

CURTIS STRANGE:  And I think Paul is exactly right, and not to dwell on Bay Hill so much, but I don’t think we can overstate the importance of him winning at Bay Hill for two reasons.

One, it might be a little bit of an overstatement, but one, this is the start of his second career because of getting over the shame, getting over the past, starting anew, and also starting anew with new mechanics and a new golf swing.  It solidifies his belief in Sean Foley.  I think it was huge, huge for him, and then also I think now we can move on.

PAUL AZINGER:  Curtis, are we going to be in agreement that technically ‑‑ when he was with Hank, I think the great instructors in today’s game would probably have seen towards the end of his dominance really with Hank, when he started to get stuck in his golf swing, we could all look at Tiger’s swing and see five or six or seven things that we didn’t like and so would the great instructors, but if you look at Tiger’s swing now, if you were picky, you might find one or two.  I bet Andy and Curtis are in agreement, he is more fundamentally sound now than he was before he had the accident.

CURTIS STRANGE:  He didn’t ‑‑ not one time working with Hank Haney did he hit the ball as well as he did this past weekend.  Not one time did I see him in the years with Hank Haney did he hit the ball that well.  Drove it well, he was number one in driving, distance and accuracy hit, damn near all the greens, and when you do that, it takes the pressure off the putting, and he was able to putt well.

MIKE TIRICO:  I’m going to add one point to the contrary of all this because it sounds like the guys are saying yes, yes and yes to your questions.  The last seven majors have been won by guys who won their first major.  10 of the last 11 have been won by first‑time major champs.  I’m just saying there are more guys in the field who have the confidence and the indestructible Tiger atop of the leaderboard, I think that is not there for many more players in the field as we go in.  So that would be the one other‑side‑of‑the‑street view of this that I would say maybe it’s not going to be as easy because of the health issues, will they hold up, and maybe more players getting to the first tee on Thursday of a major who not only have a chance to win but know how to win.

PAUL AZINGER:  Tiger at his best was unbeatable.  You can’t play defense in golf.  I think the one element of intimidation that Tiger had on everybody pre‑accident, pre‑fire hydrant, was that when he walked on that tee on Sunday, and I’ve said this before, black pants and a shirt the color of blood, you looked at him like he was the most disciplined player by far, maybe the most disciplined athlete, and at times maybe the most disciplined person.

But what we didn’t realize was that maybe we were more disciplined than he was.  We didn’t know that.  This generation knows that.  They can say, I think I’m more disciplined than him, if they’re not doing the things that he’s doing, or was doing.  I’m just saying, this generation now can say, I’m just as disciplined, maybe more.

Q.  Curtis, there’s been ample evidence this year and at lesser events how difficult it is to close out a tournament on a Sunday.  Can you give us some idea, especially at an event like this, what’s going through a player’s head and stomach trying to close out a lead on a Sunday, how difficult that is and what traits serve a player best coming down to the finish?

CURTIS STRANGE: You know, I just think it takes a lot of character, it takes a lot of guts.  It’s hard.

You know, I saw this year an interesting thing.  When Kyle Stanley won Phoenix after blowing it at San Diego the week before, when Peter Kostis ‑‑ this is just an example.  When Peter Kostis interviewed him before it was official that he won, he was talking freely; he was in control of himself.  After whoever didn’t make his second shot and Kyle Stanley had won officially his first tournament, he couldn’t speak.  His lips were quivering.  He was so emotional, and it just showed how much it means to these guys, and we get blown over ‑‑ they make their money and don’t win a lot of tournaments.  You know what I’m saying.  I thought it was a great portrait of a person and how much it meant to them.

Now, in a major in a Masters which is coming up next week, you can ten‑fold the pressure on that, and I’ve been through it, I know.  I always felt like I could handle Sunday afternoon reasonably well.  I felt somewhat comfortable.

But the first time I was in contention on Sunday afternoon at the Masters, it was hard.  It was really hard, physically and emotionally, and everybody has to go through it.  We saw it first hand with Rory last year, and I think you just have to buckle down if you’re a youngster.  You don’t know how to buckle down and do it when you’re as young as Rory McIlroy or some of the other youngsters.  You have to be there a few times.  You have to be there a few times in other events.  And even then you just have to buckle down and focus.

It’s not easy.  Some people have written books over it.  But you just need a lot of intestinal fortitude, a lot of focus, don’t think about trophy, don’t think about anything else.  You have to take, as Zinger said, one shot at a time.  There’s no tricks to it.

Q. I actually wanted to ask you a little bit about last year’s tournament.  I actually went back and watched the whole final round.  I had a DVD of it, and there were eight different guys tied for the lead, and I think I’m more confused now about what happened than I was last year in with, NASCAR terms, kind of like eight wide coming down the final stretch.  From an entertainment standpoint, I know it’s hard to say it was the best Masters ever, but from an entertainment standpoint if Paul or Curtis can remember watching one that had them more on the edge of their seat.

PAUL AZINGER:  I missed the ’86 Masters with Jack coming down the stretch because I was in Hattiesburg playing.

You know, it was awesome.  It got ‑‑ Rory let everybody in, and it was anybody’s game, and my palms were sweating.  I’m sitting there with Tirico and Curtis, and we’re watching it doing the 3D telecast and getting the call the final day of the Masters, and it just became so compelling.  You know, I need to rewatch it myself to remember who all the eight guys were.

But for Schwartzel to come out of the pack the way he did and birdie those holes at the very end to finish that championship ‑‑ the Masters off, you can’t call it a championship, you call it the Masters, I guess.  I said championship last year a few times.

But what an event, and it was awesome last year.  It’s a very, very difficult course to win on because most of the people that are trying to win have watched the Masters their whole life, and they’ve watched it on that golf course.

Schwartzel impressed me.  I thought Schwartzel would be a dominant force in the game, and maybe he will after he defends and he can kind of move on.

CURTIS STRANGE:  ’75 Masters with Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf, Jack Nicklaus, Nicklaus sitting in that scorer’s tent at the last hole when they both had birdie putts, pretty exciting stuff.  ’86, Jack winning was ‑‑ not only exciting but so emotional for everyone.  And then last year.  Last year was top rank.

Q. Mike and Andy North have already touched on this, so maybe we can get Zinger and Curtis.  Luke Donald, what do you think it will take for him to break through and win a major?

CURTIS STRANGE:  Luke has got the confidence to do it.  I think it’s a matter of time before he wins a major championship.  He’s beaten the best players in the world on numerous occasions.  He’s become the most consistent player in the game.  He’s not an overpowering type of a player, but I believe he has the temperament to win majors, and what does he have to do to do it?  He just has to do it.  It’s just one of those things you’ve got to get it done, and until you do it, you don’t know if you can do it until you’ve done it.  I think that’s his big hurdle now.  He’s just got to pull it off.

ANDY NORTH:  I think the world of his game.  He’s been as consistent or more consistent as anybody in the last two years, but I think it’s going to be a tough week for him at Augusta.  I don’t think he has quite the length, and as I said earlier, he’s given up so much to some of these big hitters.  He can win there, but he has to be so exact for four straight days.  Zach Johnson type, laying up on par‑5s, getting them all up‑and‑down.  He has to be taking advantage of every opportunity, and that’s going to be tough.  He’s more of a U.S. Open type player, possibly British Open player, where consistency, tenaciousness, accuracy comes into play more than the Masters.

PAUL AZINGER:  Not only that, but he has to be a no‑mistake guy or a one or two or three‑mistake guy, whereas like some guys because of their power they can make a few more mistakes.  But he has to be ‑‑ just he has to be the best wedge player in the world next week to win that tournament.

Q.  Kind of a three‑part question.  Why has it been so difficult for first‑timers to win there?  Second part, do you remember anything about your first time at Augusta that maybe you can share?  And then thirdly, this year I think you’ve got guys like Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson, Sang‑Moon Bae who are first‑time players there.  Can we maybe expect that streak to end any time soon?

ANDY NORTH:  I think the first time ‑‑ when you play Augusta National, you don’t have any concept about the greens.  You can watch it on television all you want to and have people talk about the greens this and the greens that.  Until you get there, and even in the practice rounds, they have this mysterious ‑‑ for years and years, mysteriously, from Wednesday night to Thursday morning, they’d be like two feet faster on the stimpmeter, and they were just so ridiculous to putt.  I will be happy to share with you something about my first Masters.

I went on Thursday and shot 66 my first round there, official round, and it was one of those days that you played well, but you had the ball in the perfect position every single hole, putting up the hills.  You never had a fast putt.  I walked off the golf course that day and said, man, this is ‑‑ I might win ten of these things.  I really like this.  This is going to be great.

And the next day I hit it the same way and shot 81.  I had it in the wrong place on every single hole and have not come close to playing there as well as I did that first day in 15 more Masters.

It’s a golf course that you almost have to be lucky to get the ball in the right places on certain holes.  You can hit it beautifully, and you still can’t keep the ball in the right places because you’ve got to carry it over a ridge in the green and then keep it short of another one, and it’s impossible sometimes to do that.  And I think that’s why everybody has talked today about how important ripping the par‑5s up are, because if you don’t take advantage of those holes, you can go there days without getting good birdie putts.

And there’s something also there, you can hit it ten feet from the hole five straight holes and not have a putt you even try to make, and that’s something you never see any other place you play.  You can be lagging from ten feet hoping you two‑putt, and that sounds silly, but that’s how the greens are if you have the ball in the wrong positions.

CURTIS STRANGE:  Local knowledge is just indispensable there.  It’s proven it since 1933.  You’ve got to play there some to play well there.

My experience there, I played with Nicklaus in ’75 the first round.  The only word that describes it is frightened, absolutely frightened.  My goal was to get the ball on the tee on the first hole, and that was it.  And I think a guy who has game because of his length, I think a young guy like Keegan Bradley, if he can get lucky, as Andy said, he can be a guy that could be there come late Sunday afternoon.

PAUL AZINGER:  And also, it’s an intimidating place.  Everybody who’s going there as a first‑timer has watched it on television.  They know the significance of what it means to win that event, and it’s an intimidating place.  An inch or two here or there can mean the difference in 100 feet or 50 feet on a hole like 6 for example, that par‑3, you shoot at that top right pin and you’ve just about got it and the ball just doesn’t quite hang up and the next thing you know it’s run off the green and you’re 25, 30 yards down the hill.  That’s just the way it is.

15 is another one; there’s that kind of that precipice where it stays on or it rolls back in the water and you’re pitching from the other side of the pond.  It’s intimidating, and it means a lot, and there’s nobody going in there that’s going to be naïve mentally.  And Curtis is right, it can scare you.  There’s a learning curve that’s required.  There’s very few that show up on Tour that don’t need that learning curve.  Tiger is the only guy I can think of that didn’t require a learning curve.

MIKE TIRICO:  And the one thing about the two guys you mentioned in Bradley and Simpson, they did multiple things to get into the Masters.  Obviously Bradley not just winning the PGA, but he’s continued to play well, and same thing with Webb Simpson, not just winning but being a top 30 Money List guy and continuing to play well, plus I think as Curtis alluded to, Bradley’s style of game.

So if you have ‑‑ smaller group than last year, I think last year was 20 first‑timers, and as of right now we’re at 15 pending what happens in Houston.  Of that list, of that smaller group, if there are a couple of guys who are likely to be around for a little while, I think it might be those guys.  There’s one guy that’s a first‑timer this year who I’m really happy for and excited to see play and hope he plays well and that’s Harrison Fraser, that’s a guy who has been around for a long time, with 330‑some‑odd Tour starts, and as with so many players getting that first win, immediately discussing the opportunity to go to Augusta the first full week of April.  So I’m excited to watch him.

But I would agree with Bradley and Simpson being first‑timers that they’re more watching than perhaps some of the others.

ANDY NORTH:  I just went on and looked at the weather for the next ten days.  It’s warm and it’s dry.  And when you see that golf course in that state, a first‑timer really is going to have trouble because you just don’t have any idea where the ball will ricochet to, that sort of thing.  So we’re going to see ‑‑ in all likelihood we could have some afternoon thunderstorms once in a while, but it looks like it’s going to be dry and hot, which is going to be a lightning‑fast, firm golf course, which will be really exciting.

Q.  I just wanted to follow up with Paul on Luke Donald again because you mentioned that he’s going to go in there again and he’s going to get all the talk again about when are you going to win a major.  You’re No. 1 in the world but you haven’t won a major.  How much does that wear on a guy?  He’s going on two years of this now.  How much does it wear on a guy and how easy or difficult is it to put that out of your mind?

PAUL AZINGER:  It’s a pain.  You know, it’s a pain in his neck, and he’s going to have to answer it until it’s done.  You know, Montgomerie went through it.  Tom Kite went through it longer than anybody, best player to never win a major.  I had the mantle when I holed out of the bunker to win the Memorial.  I thought it was a good thing.  I go to New York the next week and now I’m the best player to never win a major.  You’ve got to deal with it at some point.

There’s going to be a bunch of No. 1s if Tiger goes kind of back to what he was doing pre‑Bay Hill.  There’s been a lot of players that have had an opportunity in this generation that Tiger, the previous generation had no opportunity to have, and that was to ever even be considered the best player of his generation.  Well, these guys have that opportunity, and with it comes a little bit of a responsibility and a pressure.

For Luke, I mean, he’s dealing with it.  He’s No. 1 and he hasn’t done it, and Sergio has gone through it.  Lee Westwood is going through it.  We haven’t even mentioned Lee Westwood today.  There’s another player, he may sneak in under the radar a little bit.  But it’s hard.  He’s got to prove to himself that he can win a major championship.  As Curtis alluded to, it’s more difficult.  You can multiply ‑‑ it’s a big deal to win a regular event, it’s emotional and it’s tough, but when you’ve got to answer to 300 people in the pressroom, you get hard questions.  What are you going to do tomorrow if it’s Saturday night, Luke, different than you did the previous other 50 majors you’ve played in.  He’s going to have to answer that question.  Until he wins it, he’s always going to have to answer it and the burden is ten‑fold.

Q.  For Paul or Curtis, yes, we know that Rory has done such a good job of taking what happened last year, putting it behind him and then winning the U.S. Open.  But now he has to actually physically come to the place where everything went haywire for him on that Sunday.  Even though he has won a major championship since, do some of those demons have the potential to creep back up?

CURTIS STRANGE:  You know, I’ve got to tell you, I’m sure ‑‑ he hasn’t played in three weeks, and I’m sure he’s been there probably more than once during this time.  He has gone through that during his practice rounds.  The first time he goes there, whenever it is, he goes through all of that, one time and one time only.

Now, he will have to reminisce when he’s asked about it in the pressroom, but as a player on the golf course, hey, I went through this, too.  They’re players.  We’re golfers.  We have short memories.  That’s the best way to go about it.

When he gets to the first tee Thursday, I don’t think he’ll think about it at all, I really don’t.

PAUL AZINGER:  Totally agree.  You put it behind you.  He’s won his major and he’s 22 years old.  He’s already addressed it in his practice rounds.  I guarantee he’s been there and played it several times and kind of the cliché of one shot at a time, I like the way Tiger put it:  “My goal on Thursday is to get that ball where I want it to be that first shot,” and that’s the way all good players think.

Q. The question I’ve got is all you guys alluded to this early in the call in talking about the anticipation of the top guys playing well at this time getting ready to go into the Masters, but now that the world seems to think that Tiger is back after the Bay Hill win, do you suspect a return to the time next week when the field falls away once he gets his name running up the leaderboard, or do you really believe it’s going to be another Sunday shootout like last year with him included?

ANDY NORTH:  Well, I think the Masters is maybe a little bit different because they set it up on Sunday totally different than they do early in the week.  You’ll have some hole locations that are very favorable for the players to create that electricity on a Sunday afternoon, which is wonderful, and the players have watched it on television enough that they know if they’re in the hunt, you’ve got to birdie or eagle 13.  You’ve got to ‑‑ you’ll have a chance to birdie 14.  15 is another birdie or eagle hole.  Where the hole is located at 16, if you hit the proper shot, you can get it close for a birdie.

So you have a bunch of opportunities coming down the stretch, and the players know that.  And I think that’s what makes the last nine holes at the Masters so much fun is that anything can happen; and the players know that.  And I think that’s where having been in that situation previously and understanding where these holes are located ‑‑ you can go and play practice rounds with veteran players, and they can help you and try to get you around when you’re a younger player.  But having been there and done that and know that you walk up on the green, you know how a putt is going to break before you even read it, that just gives you that much more confidence to make the key shot under pressure.

CURTIS STRANGE:  I think we’re talking so much about the mystique now that he’s back.  I definitely think that he is of an age now, he’s 36, I don’t know when he turns 37.  I don’t think he’ll lap the field and win by 12 lengths like he did before.  But I certainly expect him to be there with numerous others Sunday afternoon ‑‑ I don’t think the intimidation factor as you alluded to, will they drop away, I don’t think that’ll happen because of Tiger Woods this week.  But I damn sure believe, opposite of many other people, that if he wins another two or three times or one time and he’s back on the leaderboard later in the year in another major, intimidation is part of the game again, just like it was before. Because I really think he’s ‑‑ if Tiger Woods plays reasonably well, he wins, okay.  He is still better than Rory and anybody else I’ve seen come on the scene, okay.

But we have not seen him play like that.  We saw him play like that Saturday and Sunday and last week at Bay Hill, and he won by five in tough conditions.  But I just think it’s going to be a process.  I certainly expect him to be there.  I would not bet against him this week at all.

I think what I saw last weekend was huge for me, too.  I saw the guy who was comfortable in his own skin, and I saw a guy who was comfortable with his golf swing, and I’m not one to embellish too much, but I really think ‑‑ it would be shocking to me if he wasn’t in the mix, and I wouldn’t bet against him.

But the intimidation factor isn’t there yet.

ANDY NORTH:  Well, intimidation, that’s a strange thing.  Like at Bay Hill, only one player in the last eight groups shot under par on Sunday.  Is that the golf course being hard, or is that ‑‑ oh, by the way, that one guy was Tiger, and all the other guys trying to catch him shot over par, par or worse.  Is that intimidation?  I don’t know, but they don’t play as well playing with him.

But I think Augusta National is a little bit different just because of the way the golf course is set up, that it’s harder for people to go away as quickly because there’s so many opportunities there on Sunday you don’t see at a lot of other majors.

PAUL AZINGER:  And I’ll just say this:  You cannot play defense in the game of golf, and if the guy is clicking ‑‑ if he’s clicking on all cylinders, he will not lose the tournament.  It’s just as simple as that.  Nobody can stop him.  If he has that convergence of the mental part and the physical part like he did at Bay Hill, if McDowell doesn’t make three‑putts over 40 feet long, Tiger wins Bay Hill by eight.

I’m just saying there’s no stopping him.  It wasn’t about whether or not he was intimidating or whether or not anybody ‑‑ is anybody as good as he is at age 36 or 37?  Is anybody as good as he is when he’s good, and I think the answer is no.

Q.  Zinger, you probably just addressed it with that answer, but maybe for Curtis, address Mike’s point that there’s such a deep field now, there’s a belief that guys can win now that maybe they didn’t have before.  Curtis, address for me, do you think that Tiger faces a more difficult task than Jack did as far as getting those last four or five?  Is it harder for Tiger than it was for Jack?

CURTIS STRANGE:  You know, it’s so tough to compare generations, because we’re looking at a game that ‑‑ we’re looking at a game right now that is probably as different from one time to the next as any time in our life as far as golf, from 12 or 14 years ago with the balls and the equipment, the athletes in the game.  It’s just so different.

You know, it’s probably a little bit more difficult for Tiger because the depth of field is there, and also he has the pressure of chasing Jack Nicklaus.  Now, I know Jack was chasing Bobby Jones, but that ended at, what, 14?  Just the pressure of that goal out there is enough in itself.  I can’t wait ‑‑ I hope ‑‑ I don’t have a vote in the does he get to 19 or 18 or whatever, but I dearly hope he gets to 17 to see the excitement from the world of golf.

I would say probably Tiger has more pressure on him for the last four or five.  You’ve got to put that in perspective.  That’s Phil Mickelson’s career, four or five majors, that he’s got to create to break his record.  There’s still a lot of work to be done.  It seemed like a given some years ago.  Now I think it’s going to be tougher.  But he’s still got a chance, but I just can’t imagine the pressure when you get down to the last couple of majors

Q.  This is a little bit off topic from Tiger and the comeback and how he’s playing.  I’m working on a story on Stewart Cink, who is going through some swing changes right now, struggling a little bit.  This is more for Paul than anybody else.  I know you had him on the Ryder Cup team recently.  Since he won the British Open in ’09 he’s struggled a bit.  Can you talk about just your remembrances as a player when you go through these ups and downs and when you start to question yourself what’s going on, and how hard is it to work on these changes when you’re in the midst of trying to compete with the best players in the world?

PAUL AZINGER:  Well, now kind of looking backwards and playing armchair quarterback on my career and on the careers of many, I know Curtis tried to make some swing changes late in his career, Norman tried to make swing changes late in his career, and really at this point, what Tiger has done is an anomaly, for him to win golf tournaments with three different swings is an anomaly.

I have the attitude now, unless I want an overhaul, if you can’t fix me in five or ten minutes, you’re telling me wrong.  I’m physically smart, and what I used to do was good enough to win golf tournaments, and if you’re going to tell me that I need to make swing changes that are going to take six weeks or eight weeks or ten weeks, I’m going to run, buddy.  I’m out of there.  I don’t want to hear it, and I feel bad that somehow Stewart Cink has decided that that massive ball flight, that power game that he played somehow needed changing.  What he needed to do in my opinion is get with somebody that could restore him or get him in a setup position to allow him to swing the way he did when he was winning tournaments.

Stewart’s become maybe a little bit of an underachiever in some ways because he had such a great ‑‑ his demeanor and his temperament, I thought he could even challenge Tiger Woods a little bit.  And it just hasn’t quite happened.  He’s a terrific player.  I have nothing but respect for him, and I’m sad that he’s going through a tough time because I like him so much.

But I don’t understand it.  I don’t understand these guys who feel like they need to struggle first in order to get good.  We’re all physically smart.  Why if you can’t ‑‑ if you tell me right, I’m going to hit it good in the first five or ten minutes today, and I haven’t touched a club other than Monday, last Monday, in six weeks.

I don’t know, Curtis.  You tried to make a swing change.  Am I out of bounds on this?

CURTIS STRANGE:  No, I agree with you.  I think swing changes are sometimes unnecessary, but I think you have to do something to improve.  I agree with you.  I think Stewart Cink was Tiger Woods before Tiger Woods came on the scene, playing college golf and early on.

But sometimes you don’t know when to stop.  You don’t know when to stop tinkering.  And maybe that’s his case.  I haven’t talked to Stewart, so I don’t know.  But it’s a tough game.  Sometimes you don’t know when you’ve peaked, sometimes you don’t know when to stop.

PAUL AZINGER:  I look at it, just talk about Andy North for a second here.  Byron Nelson has got a great quote, and I used it on the air last year.  He said, “there’s two kinds of players, there’s those that need to know a little, and there’s those that need to know it all.  Which one do you think is easier?”  The reality is you only need to know what works for you, and it will work the rest of your life.  There’s something that’s causing it not to work.  It’s a setup change or ball position or something is out of whack.

ANDY NORTH:  I completely agree with you.  If it doesn’t work in ten minutes, move on to the next thought.

PAUL AZINGER:  Right, and Andy North, you played your whole career.  You didn’t need to know it all, you just needed to know a little.  I want my teacher to know it all; I just want to know a little.  I know Andy played that way.  Andy North would go out and hit it great today, and he probably hasn’t touched a club in four months.

ANDY NORTH:  Thanks, Zing, but I’ve actually played the last couple of days, not very well, first time in four months.

But you know, I think there’s something here that we’re focusing so much on the swing change part of this.  After a player wins a major championship, and I know I went through it, and I think so many other players who maybe weren’t completely prepared for being a major champion have gone through it, is that once you’re now a major champion, people start asking, expecting things of you, and sometimes you think differently of yourself and you start believing that maybe ‑‑ to be a great player and a major champion, what do I need to do better, what do I need to do to be a better player, and you change the way you think about yourself and the way you think about your golf game.

You know, you don’t need to be better.  It worked.  But so many guys start changing things after they’ve won a major because they want to be perfect.  They want to be the next ‑‑ they want to win 20 majors.  Well, you know what, that’s not going to happen.  So figure out what works for you and then use it and go ahead from there.

Q.  Just wanted to talk with a couple of the former Clemson golfers in the tournament.  You mentioned Simpson and Bradley as two of the first‑timers who could possibly make some noise.  I want to get your thoughts on Kyle Stanley, another first‑timer, the way he’s playing, if he can get into the mix, and also if you don’t mind following up with maybe a few brief comments on whether you think Lucas Glover might be too rusty still to make any noise and if Jonathan Byrd could possibly get into the hunt on the weekend after having one previous top 10 at Augusta.

ANDY NORTH:  Well, I’ll start with Lucas.  I think Lucas has probably fallen into that category of what I was talking about just a moment ago where a player ‑‑ you accomplish a goal that’s been such a huge goal in your life, and things change.  You try to be a different kind of player or you try to go do too much.  You try to take advantage of the situation.

You know, he’s gone through this period of time where he hasn’t played very well, very much like Tiger, for a whole lot of different reasons, and you just have to find yourself.  You’re going to struggle as a player.  This is where you find out how mentally tough you are and how hard it is to get back to being the player that got you that championship.

I know personally when I won my first Open, my goal from the time I was 14 or 15 years old was to win the U.S. Open, and after it happened, I couldn’t care less about everything else.  I had accomplished the most important thing that had ever happened to me in my life, and maybe Lucas is in that same deal, that this is all he’s ever wanted to do.

And it was really, really hard to refocus.  I struggled for a couple years, kind of like a rudderless ship out wandering around.  I practiced hard.  I went to events.  I played my butt off.  But there just was something missing.

It took me a while to figure out, I need something out there to keep trying to work for.  I think that’s what happens to so many guys.  They accomplish something they never dreamed they could, or they dreamed they could, they never thought it would happen, now where do you go from there.  So I think Lucas is fighting through all that, and then it always happens, you have a little injury here or you do something and you start messing with your swing.  You have to get back to what got you there and go from there.

CURTIS STRANGE:  Well said.  I like what you just said.  I think that ‑‑ to the writer who asked the question, I’ve got Kyle Stanley as my dark horse.  Why?  I know he’s a rookie; he’s going to have a tough time I would think, but I also think he showed incredible courage and character and whatever else you want to call it when he did what he did at San Diego this year and came back the very next week and won in Phoenix.  That to me was astounding.

I like him.  I like him doing that.  I like his game.  He’s incredibly long, they say, beautiful swing.  I think he’s got a huge, long career in front of him, and I think he’s got the game to play well.

Anyway, that’s the guy I have as a dark horse.  And I don’t have my list in front of me, so there could be others out there.  But I think whatever it is, it’s going to be fun, a hell of a good fun week next week.

PAUL AZINGER:  And I think Keegan Bradley is the guy who has the best chance.  Who won the last major that’s been played?  It was Keegan Bradley.  I like the look in his eye when he plays.  He just seems like that he goes into this zone mentally.  Really in the end it’s can they handle Augusta National the first time.  Who’s the least intimidated by their surroundings?

Guys walk into this tournament with their eyes wide open, and there’s no way to hide from the history at Augusta National.  Keegan just looks to me like I think he’s the best new young player.  I think he has ‑‑ and he’s even created a bit of a gap.  He seems to be in contention every week, so we’ll see.

CURTIS STRANGE:  We haven’t mentioned one other guy here that I think is just on the outskirts of being a favorite, and that’s Dustin Johnson.  Certainly he’s been there a couple of times now, and he’s had a chance to win three majors, certainly has ‑‑ he can play.  Forget about the swing.  He’s got I think the best coach in the game because he won’t change his swing, and that’s Butch Harmon.  I think he might be trying to get over that hurdle as Andy talked about winning, getting over the hurdle of losing three in a row, and he’s just got a lot of game, a lot of game.