All eyes, and many bets, are on Tiger Woods as Masters is set to tee off

Spectators watch Tiger Woods on the driving range during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Tiger Woods drew a large crowd no matter where he practiced for the Masters, above on the Augusta National driving range. (Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

Twenty-five years after the most dominating win in the history of the Masters, Tiger Woods has pulled off an even more unbelievable victory.

He’s playing this week.

In a development that would have been inconceivable a year ago, when he was in the early stages of recovery from a rollover car accident that nearly cost him his right leg, Woods is competing for a record-tying sixth green jacket.

“I think the fact that I was able to get myself here to this point is a success,” said Woods, 46, who Thursday will tee off on the No. 1 hole at 7:34 a.m. PDT. “Now that I’m playing, now that everything is focused on how do I get myself in the position where I’m on that back nine Sunday with a chance? Just like I did a few years ago.”

Woods believes his biggest test will be walking the undulating course, soaked by sometimes torrential rains during the last two days. Play was suspended Tuesday and Wednesday because of thunderstorms, cutting short practice rounds.

“I don’t have to worry about the ball striking or the game of golf, it’s actually just the hills out here,” he said. “That’s going to be the challenge, and it’s going to be a challenge of a major marathon.”

PointsBet has taken three times as many bets on Woods to win the Masters than any other player, driving his odds down from 80-to-1 on Monday to 50-to-1 on Wednesday.

“It speaks to Tiger’s transcendent popularity among bettors,” said Teddy Greenstein, the sportsbook’s senior editor. “No one else is close.”

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Woods undoubtedly will attract massive galleries as he did in his practice rounds, even though six players could wind up No. 1 in the world by winning this week and Rory McIlroy is vying for a career Grand Slam.

Playing in the shadow of Woods has some appeal to competitors such as Dustin Johnson, winner of the pandemic-postponed Masters in November 2020.

“Obviously he’s one of greatest that’s ever played this game and especially in our era, so any time he tees it up, especially after his injuries, he’s going to take a lot of attention, which is OK with me,” said Johnson, ranked No. 8 in the world. “I always like sliding in a little under the radar.”

The tournament’s defending champion is Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, who didn’t need an interpreter for his one-word answer when asked which golfer he idolized growing up: “Tiger.”

Woods hasn’t played since that fall Masters, and although he might be the sentimental favorite, there’s a lot of jostling ahead of him.

Scottie Scheffler has rocketed to a No. 1 ranking with his first three career victories coming in the last six weeks. His best performance at the Masters was a tie for 18th, yet he has finished in the top 20 in all six major championships he’s played since getting his PGA Tour card.

“The level of focus, especially around this golf course, is so high and you have to be on for so long that it’s definitely different than approaching a regular PGA Tour event,” Scheffler said.

Scottie Scheffler hits out of a bunker on the 13th hole during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament Wednesday.

Scottie Scheffler, the No. 1 player in the world, was able to get some practice time around the rain Wednesday at Augusta National ahead of the Masters. (Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

“There’s definitely more stress with all the people being around and with the emphasis that’s placed on this tournament because it’s the Masters. So the week is definitely — it’s a long week.”

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Jon Rahm, who won the U.S. Open last year, is No. 2 and finished in the top 10 the last four years at the Masters. No. 3 Collin Morikawa, who won the PGA Championship in 2020 and British Open last year, is considered by many to be the best irons player in the world.

“The standards have gone up and the standards sometimes are a little too high and they end up hurting me rather than helping me when you’re out on the golf course,” said Morikawa of La Cañada Flintridge. “I feel like I should eight an eight-iron to 10 feet every single time, but, you know, it just doesn’t happen. There are times that that happens.

“But the biggest thing for me is just keep getting better. Like how do I keep figuring things out, learning small little things.”

Jordan Spieth earned a green jacket with a wire-to-wire victory in 2015 and has five top-three finishes in eight Masters appearances.

“I feel like my game’s in a great spot,” he said. “I feel like I’m ready to contend.”

San Diego’s Xander Schauffele, among the runners-up to Woods in 2019, was making a Sunday move on Matsuyama before a triple-bogey on the 16th hole.

Asked about his memories of that comeback and ultimate meltdown, he said: “Good and bad. Bad because I didn’t win, but good because I was way out of it and then was able to sort of get myself back into the tournament.”

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McIlroy’s best finish at Augusta was fourth in 2015, although he blew a big lead in 2011 and had a good chance in 2018 but lost in the final group to Patrick Reed. Already, McIlroy has wins in the U.S. Open (2011) and British Open (2014) and two in the PGA Championship (2012, 2014).

“I’m maybe at a different stage of my life where back then golf was everything,” said McIlroy, 32. “Obviously, look, it’s still very, very important, but maybe back then I would think that — I don’t know if I would feel like I was fulfilled if I didn’t win one or whatever it is, but it’s less pressure.”

Justin Thomas, who finished in the top 10 in six of his last nine starts, is angling for his first win at Augusta. He was part of a five-way tie for first after 36 holes in 2020 but has finished no better than fourth. Overall, he has struggled on the biggest stage.

“I have not even close to performed well in my entire career in majors,” he said. “I had a good year in ’17. I had one good major there at the PGA, I think in ’18, and played well at the Masters here in ’20. But in terms of a result standpoint, which is at the end of the day is all that matters when it comes to tournaments is how you finish at the end of the week.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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