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updated: 4/9/2013 7:13 PM

With Tiger on prowl, Masters crowds ready to roar

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  • In a photo taken through a metal cutout of the Masters' logo, Tiger Woods hits on the driving range during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament Tuesday, April 9, 2013, in Augusta, Ga.

      In a photo taken through a metal cutout of the Masters' logo, Tiger Woods hits on the driving range during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament Tuesday, April 9, 2013, in Augusta, Ga.
    Associated Press

  • Tiger Woods watches his shot out of a bunker on the second hole during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament Tuesday, April 9, 2013, in Augusta, Ga.

      Tiger Woods watches his shot out of a bunker on the second hole during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament Tuesday, April 9, 2013, in Augusta, Ga.
    Associated Press

 
 

Everyone is thinking it. It's OK to go ahead and say it.

How great would it be to see Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy slugging it out Sunday on the back nine at Augusta?

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The buzz is back for this year's Masters and it's entirely because Tiger Woods is also back.

Of course, he won't get much credit for a world-best 3 wins so far this season -- a career for many players -- or his World No. 1 ranking, because Woods is held to a different standard, and until he breaks Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major victories, Woods will continue to face criticism.

Even if he passes Nicklaus, some will never accept Woods as the best ever.

It wouldn't be a surprise at all if Woods picked up one of those majors this weekend, but the truth is Augusta doesn't fit his game perfectly anymore.

The Masters is a draw course for righties and a fade for lefties, which is why you see Phil Mickelson in the mix every year regardless of form entering the tournament, and why five lefties have won in the last 10 years.

Woods, while playing great golf the last few months, is now missing right when he misses. That's the good news. He has pretty much eliminated the double-cross, and is trying to make sure he's only missing to one side of the golf course.

The bad news is this is very much a right-to-left course for righties, and one thing that has not yet returned for Woods is that guaranteed, bullet draw.

He could always count on the stinger before, whether it was 3-wood or 2-iron, and though he still hits it occasionally -- sometimes now a 5-wood -- it is no longer money in the bank.

Perhaps by this time next year it will be. During the time it took for him to come back from injury and swing change, Woods focused so much on the driver and long irons that his short game suffered.

Over the winter, he focused on the short game and now his distance control with the wedges has returned to brilliance, and he's making putts at an absurd rate.

Tiger Woods is probably about a year away from being Tiger Woods again, assuming health and the ability to practice, but that's also no guarantee for a man who's been through a lot with his legs.

In the meantime, his game is in excellent shape and he has every reason to think he'll win at least one major this season, starting this weekend.

Woods has won at least twice before the Masters seven times previously, and in six of those Tour seasons he has won at least one major. His 4 Masters victories have come in seasons in which he's won at least once before Augusta.

Among his wins this season are victories at Torrey Pines and Doral, and in 2005 when he won those two events, he won the Masters and the Open Championship.

The arrow is definitely pointed in the right direction, so if he's conservative and takes what the par-5s offer, he's got a great shot to win even if the course isn't quite perfect for his go-to fade off the tee.

That's why the buzz is back, the roars are growing and ticket prices soaring. According to ESPN, ticket prices are at a 16-year high, with $50 practice-round tickets going for $1,000 and four-day badges originally priced at $250 selling for $10,000.

It's not hard to figure out why.

People want to see the greatest player in the game -- arguably the greatest of all time -- play great golf.

They want to witness it. They want to be able to say they were there when it happened.

As for McIlroy, he's had a rough go since becoming the No. 1 ranked player in the world, a designation Woods regained when he won at Bay Hill last month.

McIlroy signed a huge endorsement deal, changed equipment and learned what it's like to carry the burden of ridiculous expectations every time he sticks a peg in the ground, while also trying to maintain a serious relationship with another high-profile athlete.

He is pulled in different directions at every minute of the day, practice time is harder to find, and distractions are constant, but he played better in San Antonio last weekend than he has at any time this season, and should take some confidence to the Masters.

And that has golf fans thinking about the possibility of seeing the world's two top-ranked players fighting for a major title on Sunday.

It rarely works out that way in golf, and the field is loaded with at least 30 players who enter the week with a legit shot to win it all.

Guys like Justin Rose, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer, Dustin Johnson, Keegan Bradley and Brandt Snedeker all believe they'll be wearing the green jacket Sunday night, but only one man in the field has won the tournament four times.

Imagine the ticket prices Sunday if Woods sleeps on a third-round lead -- and imagine the ratings if it's Woods vs. McIlroy down the stretch.

Fans have waited for this battle. You have every right to hope it can happen.

brozner@dailyherald.com

•Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM, and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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