April 7 (Bloomberg) -- The last time Tiger Woods wasn’t favored to win the Masters Tournament, Rickie Fowler was a 10-year-old riding dirt bikes in California.
Fowler, now 22 and playing his first Masters, is among those poised to challenge for the title at golf’s first major championship of the year. Oddsmakers don’t list Woods as the pre-tournament favorite for the first time since 1999, two years after he won by a record 12 shots.
The Masters, which started today with Phil Mickelson favored to successfully defend his title, marks the 25th anniversary of Jack Nicklaus’s victory at age 46. It’s also perhaps the best chance lesser-known players have had to win at the Georgia course since Woods won the first of his four titles in 1997.
“There could be genuinely 20 guys here who could win,” Nick Faldo, who won the last of his three Masters titles in 1996, said in an interview behind the Augusta National Golf Club clubhouse yesterday. “It’s going to be really widely contested.”
Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer hit the ceremonial first drives to begin play this morning under a sunny sky in Augusta, where temperatures are forecast to be in the mid-70s Fahrenheit (24 Celsius).
Woods’s challengers, some of whom have said they took up golf seriously after watching his inaugural Masters’ win, come from all over the world. Five of the top six players in the golf rankings are non-Americans. Woods, 35, has slipped to No. 7, six spots behind Germany’s Martin Kaymer, winner of last year’s U.S. PGA Championship. He tees off at 10:41 a.m. local time, playing in a group with Graeme McDowell and Robert Allenby.
‘Enough to Win’
Second-ranked Lee Westwood of England, last year’s Masters runner-up, is among the favorites to break through with his first major title.
“I’m getting quite confident now,” said Westwood, 37, who is listed as the tournament’s third choice at 15-1 by the Las Vegas Hilton’s Race & Sports Book. “If it all clicks into place this week and if I’m on my game, it’s good enough to win.”
Mickelson, 40, is the Hilton’s choice at 13-2 to match Woods with four victories and starts his first round at 1:48 p.m., in the next-to-last group. Woods is the second choice among oddsmakers at 9-1.
Woods last won at Augusta National in 2005. He said he isn’t discounting his chances, even though he has been going through swing changes with new coach Sean Foley for the past eight months. After tying for fourth last year, the 14-time major tournament winner said being the underdog this week doesn’t offer him any separate motivation.
“Doesn’t matter,” Woods said in a press conference two days ago. “You still have to play the golf tournament, right? Everyone has the same opportunity as I do. You’ve just got to go out there and play and see where it adds up.”
Woods last began the Masters without the favorite’s tag 12 years ago, when U.K. bookmaker Ladbrokes Plc had him at 6-1 behind David Duval at 5-1. In addition to 1997 and 2005, Woods won the event in 2001 and 2002. He tied for 18th in 1999, with Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain the winner.
In six events this season, Woods hasn’t finished better than a tie for 10th, at a World Golf Championships tournament in Miami. Of his 20 rounds this season, he has posted scores in the 60s six times. Only once has he had consecutive rounds below 70.
One of Woods’s biggest advantages over the years at the Masters, the length of his tee shots, has been diminished since 1997. That year, Woods was able to hit approach shots with high-lofted irons onto the greens of many of the course’s par-5 holes, including the now 530-yard 15th, giving him an edge on his shorter-hitting opponents.
The course now measures 7,435 yards (6,799 meters), about 500 yards longer than 14 years ago.
“I don’t hit driver, wedge into 15 anymore,” Woods said.
Unlike many previous would-be challengers, who faltered when Woods’s name appeared on leader boards, Fowler and others from golf’s new generation relish the chance to beat him, coach David Leadbetter said.
“For the longest time, Tiger had everybody’s number,” Leadbetter, who has worked with top professionals including Faldo, South Africa’s Ernie Els and Australia’s Greg Norman, said in an interview last month in Orlando, Florida. “You’re now starting to see players who are not maybe quite as awestruck. These kids out here now, for wont of a better term, don’t seem to have any respect.”
Nicklaus’s 1986 win was his sixth at the Masters and 18th at a major, both records. He said he doesn’t like watching Woods struggle.
Woods hasn’t won since November 2009, about two weeks before he crashed his vehicle into a fire hydrant, touching off a scandal that resulted in his divorce after he admitted to extramarital affairs.
“I feel bad for him,” Nicklaus, 71, told reporters two days ago. “I feel bad that he got himself in that position. I hope he gets his game back and I hope he comes back and plays well.”
Until he does, there are plenty of players anxious to put on the green jacket awarded to the Masters winner on Sunday afternoon.
“I don’t think some of us young guys are just out trying to hang around,” said Fowler, who had to be told by a tournament official to turn his backward-facing hat around during his April 4 press conference. “We’re out here trying to win.”
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