ESPN golf analysts Andy North, Curtis Strange and Paul Azinger participated in a media conference call today to discuss next week’s Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. Coverage on ESPN begins with live SportsCenter reports from Augusta on Monday, April 8, and also will include 4.5 hours per day of first and second-round play on ESPN and ESPN Deportes on Thursday and Friday, April 11-12, also simulcast on ESPN3 and WatchESPN; four days on the ESPN 3D Network, extensive coverage on ESPN.com and a special 43-hour Masters tribute on ESPN Classic. Coverage of Wednesday’s Par 3 Tournament will air on ESPN with simulcast on ESPN3 and WatchESPN.
A transcript of the conference call follows:
ANDY NORTH: I think, first of all, it’s always great to be down there and get the first major championship of the year started. I think from a player standpoint you’re always looking forward to getting to Augusta for that main reason. You put in all this work and hopefully something great can happen that week. We’re really excited about our opportunity to cover the first major championship of the year, and we’ve got a lot of big time guys playing pretty well right now, and particularly I’m sure we’ll talk about Mr. Woods during this call a few times.
CURTIS STRANGE: Well, the same thing Andy just said, and maybe one more from a TV perspective, it’s always fun to come to this event, the first major of the year, because there’s so many story lines that have been building for almost six months. Those who are playing well, those who are not, those who are making a name for themselves and maybe some of the older guys who are not around as much as they used to be. It’s always fun to get some of those story lines out on TV, and as Andy just said, the biggest and the best story line so far this year is the reemergence of Tiger, of dominance and I think intimidation. That’s it.
Q. Ernie Els is saying that he’s planning to use the long putter for Augusta and then switch away from it afterwards. Do you think Augusta is a good course to do that, and then if you could also touch on Keegan Bradley and if this whole sort of controversy about long putters might be affecting his game.
CURTIS STRANGE: I’m one that doesn’t think that we should ban the long putters or anchoring the putter. I just think the game of golf was they gave you a stick and a ball and said go get it in the hole in as few strokes as possible, and I think the young kids have figured out a better way to do it with that stick and ball.
And it goes deeper, too, when we’re getting into the anchoring part of it, but when there’s not any great evidence and great numbers of people who are using it. I just think you’re going to affect people like Ernie Els and Keegan Bradley and a number of other top players.
For Ernie to do what he’s doing, he’s used that belly putter for a number of years now, and I suspect he’s only doing it so he can get ready for the short putter. I don’t know why he would be doing that. If he’s been using the belly putter and he’s been putting pretty well with it by being the current Open Champion, then I would suggest him to use it again at the Masters because the greens are so treacherous there.
But Keegan Bradley, he’s one of my guys this week. I think he’s going to do well this week because of his length and because he can putt well with that belly putter.
ANDY NORTH: I’m not going to get into the hinging or non-hinging here. I find it interesting that if Ernie … you wouldn’t want to change what you’re doing the first week at a major championship. If he wants to go to the short one next week, then that’s something that he’s thought about and he wants to do, that’s great.
As far as it affecting Keegan Bradley’s play, I would think that he’s been sort of front and center, and part of it is the fact that he’s made a bunch of statements, strong statements, about it. I would think it could affect his play.
This game is so tied to emotional calmness and your confidence, and if you’re talking about an aspect of your game all the time in maybe a negative tone, it’s got a chance to affect you.
So as Curtis is saying, he has the game to do exceptionally well there, but your head better be screwed on properly because the greens are so difficult to putt. It’s going to be an interesting week for him. I think he’s got a great chance.
CURTIS STRANGE: I think a good part about Augusta, and Andy made a good point, is that you have to be comfortable and relaxed and completely focused there, and the one thing he won’t have to deal with is any yelling from the patrons. What we’ve seen earlier this year, I think it was to Keegan but I’m not sure, Andy, on who yelled out “cheater” and that type of stuff. We won’t see any of that at Augusta. So that could certainly affect you. It would certainly affect me.
But anyway, I think he’ll be fine.
ANDY NORTH: You’d have fought them is what you would have done. That’s how it would have affected you.
CURTIS STRANGE: Well, he wouldn’t have done it again.
Q. We know that Steve helped Tiger with his putting, but I was wondering if you can see anything technically that appears to be different in either his setup or his pre stroke routine or anything that would account for this great stroke of his lately.
ANDY NORTH: If you look at Tiger, what he’s doing, setup and that, you really can’t see any difference. The changes that have been made are so fine. I know Tiger struggled with his alignment a the bit over the years that Steve has always helped him with, and sometimes, as we talked a lot about since Doral, guys are helping each other all the time, so this isn’t anything new, and sometimes you really don’t say much, but you might get the guy thinking about something a little bit differently or instead of you telling him this is what you need to do, you might ask him a question about what are you trying to do here. Well, gee, maybe you’re not quite there or maybe you’re lined up over here.
This isn’t rocket science in most cases, it’s just guys helping each other a little bit out, and I thought even in San Diego we saw Tiger much more confident with his putter before any of these lessons. I thought we saw a Tiger like we saw five or six years ago. You can break down his game and a lot of things have gone on in the last four or five years, but one thing he hasn’t done very well is putt well. He’s doing that better now, and it looks like he’s more comfortable. It looks like he’s got a lot of confidence, and you put all that together, and you’d better watch out.
Q. I wanted to ask you guys about Lucas Glover now finally being healthy after last year’s knee issues, and it seems like he’s got his personal life back in order after some issues there. Do you see any chance that Glover could possibly be in contention this week, or is he maybe still a ways away from maybe being a guy who could get to that level in a major again?
CURTIS STRANGE: I think Lucas has gone through a tough period. Everybody knows that, and it just shows how tough this game is when not everything is in perfect order, both personal life and in his golf game and health. I think it’s hard to come to Augusta when, even though his game is turning around and he’s healthy, it’s hard to go to Augusta and compete without the utmost confidence and belief in yourself and game.
A couple of the guys can Phil is kind of like that. He loves Augusta so much, and he can elevate his game. But I think it’s going to still be a little while for Lucas. I’m not saying he can’t contend and be there, but handle the pressure, to believe in yourself come the weekend, then to handle the greens and to do everything you have to do would be very, very surprising for, I think, a lot of people.
ANDY NORTH: I’d like to add a little different spin on that. Personally I struggled with my game a lot of the years I played, and after winning a major championship, I really looked forward to going to majors because I knew mentally I would be better. I would concentrate better. I felt like going to a major championship you could, even when you were struggling a little bit, having been there, done that and played exceptionally well in majors, it felt like it was easier to concentrate and focus there than just the normal week to week events, at least that was my case.
So I think sometimes when a guy is struggling, the best opportunity to see him have some positive results would be in major championships. And Augusta National is one, and the Masters, that Lucas really cares about, growing up in that part of the country, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised at all if he had a good week.
Q. When you were in your prime, both of you, how often, if at all, did you change equipment? What’s your opinion on what Rory is going through in this situation? And is that a guy, a guy changing equipment that’s struggling a little bit, is that overblown in any way?
CURTIS STRANGE: I’m first going to tell you I am a paid endorser of Nike, so take this with a grain of salt. But I changed clubs three or four times in my career, and it took me about a day to get used to the look and the feel. There’s never a different feel because they match the clubs, in Rory’s case I know this is a question, but Nike has matched the clubs to the exact dimensions that the Titleist were.
So the only thing he has to deal with is maybe a little bit of a look, and they all basically look pretty much the same. If there’s an equipment issue, it could be the Nike ball is a little, little, little tiny different. I don’t think it’s enough to make a difference. I don’t think you can tell to be honest with you. I’ve read all of this in the last month, two months, because Rory hasn’t played well, and I can honestly tell you I thoroughly believe it has nothing to do with the equipment.
And I read somewhere where chipping the ball might feel a little different. Well, it might feel different the first time or two, but he’s into this three months now, and I just think it’s so overblown, and players do change clubs all the time for contracts running out or you outprice the current manufacturer you’re working with, you move on, and in Rory’s case he moved on to a big contract.
But I really don’t believe Rory would have signed this big money deal if he didn’t truly believe he could play that equipment because it just wouldn’t be worth it. It would cost him money in the long run.
So that’s my answer, and I know there’s a lot of speculation when a top player does change clubs, but I think it’s a lot I think it’s really overblown, and I think quite frankly Nick Faldo and Johnny Miller, who have the stage to say things right or wrong about people, have been a little bit misleading because they’ve been so negative on it, and they both switched clubs.
So I just think you have to take it all with a grain of salt and realize that these guys are very, very good at what they do. I think they could play with broomsticks they’re so talented. There you have it.
ANDY NORTH: I’m going to jump in a little bit on that, also. The real problem with changing equipment, and as Curtis says, generally you get the shafts matched up and they’re going to be pretty darned close. The biggest thing is that I always wanted to make a change when I was playing as well as I possibly could so you knew you were swinging well, because what ends up happening, if you do it sometimes in the winter, you’re taking some time off, you’re not sharp, you go out and you hit a couple hundred balls with them and you hit three or four bad shots, now you start questioning that piece of equipment. It’s not the fact that maybe your swing is not as good as it should be, but you add another variable into the process of am I swinging well, am I playing well, is it the club, is it the ball, and all of a sudden you’ve got these different variables, and before you know it you don’t trust any of them.
And I think that’s what most players go through when they struggle after changing equipment is it’s not necessarily the equipment, but once you think it’s not as good as what you were playing, you’ve got problems. Or maybe you think they’re too heavy or they’re too light or they feel different. Whatever it is, if there’s any doubt in your mind, you are not going to be comfortable with that piece of equipment.
I think that’s what happens more often with players when they make the changes than just the change of equipment itself.
CURTIS STRANGE: Andy, and that’s exactly what is going on right now with Rory. See, I truly believe it’s his swing, and I’ve seen his swing different ways, but it could creep that he could question that, absolutely. But I think it’s more swing than anything else.
Q. Just looking back at last year’s tournament, how big a surprise considering Bubba’s for lack of a better word, let’s say mediocre short game, how big a surprise was it he came through and won the tournament and what do you put his chances at this year?
ANDY NORTH: I think when you start looking at players that have a chance to win at Augusta National, the first thing you look at is length. Obviously Bubba has unbelievable length. The second thing that you look at is imagination because you’re going to have to hit some squirrelly shots and have to come up with some inventive shots there over the course of 72 holes, and Bubba fits that category pretty well, also.
And then you put how important the par 5s are into winning at the Masters, and Bubba has an advantage there.
Even though his short game might not be the greatest, the other ones are so strong and his length can take over at times there that you’re hitting such short irons into the greens, you can get the ball in proper positions on the green and you can really shoot some scores.
I would never bet against a top 10 ranked player in the world that’s long at Augusta no matter what else he did.
CURTIS STRANGE: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. If we look back and remember how well he drove the ball the last day, he drove it not only long but down the middle of every fairway until 17 and I believe the playoff hole. But when you’re that long and in the middle of the fairway, you’re going to make some birdies. You just can’t help it, and especially there at the par 5s.
Q. Let’s get back to Tiger for a second. He last won the Masters in 2005, which was before the second set of big changes that Hootie instituted, and he’s actually won every other major since then, so it’s his longest losing streak in a major. Do you think there’s anything to that because he’s been in contention most every year, or what are the reasons for it?
ANDY NORTH: Well, can I jump in here because we have actually been working on some data on places, the changes that we’re going to using during a lot of the SportsCenter shows once we get there next week.
I picked a couple of holes that I thought were the most dramatic changes, and that’s 7 and 11. Those two holes I think changed more than any other hole out there with the addition of not only distance but adding trees. If you go back and look at Tiger’s numbers, he played those two holes exceptionally well, a bunch under par, before the changes.
Since the changes he’s been I’m not going to say terrible on those holes, but the numbers are really skewed poorly compared to how good they were. So basically those two holes in itself have changed the way that he’s been able to play that golf course. And I think some of it is the, I mean, you can look back to the number of times over the last three or four years, how many times has he driven the ball in those right trees at 11 and made bad scores? He’s broken clubs up against the trees. He’s been a mess on that hole at times. And that used to be a hole that he just took advantage of. He drove it down there eight miles down the right. I remember him hitting 9 iron to that hole. Now he’s been playing out of the trees and making bogey.
It’s amazing how changing one or two holes … we all made a joke of they need to Tiger proof these courses. Well, you know, they’ve done that in some way at Augusta National.
Now, it doesn’t mean he can’t play there because obviously he’s played well over the last six or seven years. He’s had a bunch of top 5 finishes. But at the same time if you’re half a shot over par on two holes more than you used to be, that’s a shot a day over four rounds, that’s a bunch of shots. That’s the difference of winning and being fourth.
CURTIS STRANGE: I think Andy made I couldn’t agree with you more on 7 and especially 11 has changed more than any other hole out there.
But Augusta since 2005 has changed dramatically. A little bit of rough now, it’s not great rough, but it’s still advantageous to drive it in the short grass versus the rough. And then you add some of the tightness on some of the holes like 7 and 11, I think Tiger is a huge favorite here this week, but he still has to drive the ball decent. We have not seen him drive the ball but just barely decent in these three wins.
Augusta is, historically a guy who can hit it long and hit it all over the place could still play because it’s a second shot golf course. Not so much anymore. It’s still a second shot golf course, but you have to drive the ball decent, and he has to do that to win.
Q. Curtis, you opened this by saying you thought the intimidation factor had returned with Tiger. Can you expound on that?
CURTIS STRANGE: I do. The last three years I read and hear about how he’s lost intimidation factor, and he did probably because the players had gained on him, because the players had gotten so much better, and they have a little bit, and he’ll never get it back. And I always disagreed because he’s still the better player of everybody. He’s still better than Rory, he’s still better than Westwood when he was playing. He was still not the best player because he was going through some changes and personal issues and just wasn’t playing as well, but if he ever started playing decent, I think they would know, and I really think it’s like that now. In fact, I’ve read a couple comments that he’s intimidating, because they know standing on the first tee I like to always relate it like this: When you’re standing on the first tee with Tiger Woods Sunday this year at the Masters, you know damned well you have to play one of your best rounds ever to win this tournament today because he’s going to play well. And that in itself is intimidating.
You know he’s not going to give you much. He might give you something because he might drive it in trouble, but he’s going to make a lot of birdies and a lot of putts and handle the pressure. And I really think that the intimidation factor is not completely back, but it’s growing in that direction. And if he was to win the Masters, then I’m telling you, I just think it might not be like it was in 2000, but he’s an intimidating figure on the golf course.
Q. And lastly, do you think any other player, including Rory, has approached that, the intimidation deal?
CURTIS STRANGE: No. Jack Nicklaus was Andy, you can help me here because you’re a little older than me, but Jack Nicklaus was always intimidating to me, and I thought that Tom Watson, you knew he was going to he wasn’t going to do it pretty sometimes, but he wouldn’t give you anything, meaning you had to play really well to beat this guy. Trevino hey, good players are great players are intimidating. Jack had an air about him that was intimidating personally, and so does Tiger. That’s part of it, as well, you know.
ANDY NORTH: I think so often when people talk about intimidation, it’s more you know deep down that you have to do something special to beat the guy, and he makes you do things on the golf course that you normally wouldn’t do. You know, maybe a take a chance when you normally wouldn’t take a chance or you try to do something a little bit special that you normally wouldn’t do, and you look at the raw numbers over the years, that guys that play with Tiger don’t play nearly as well.
So you know, he knows that he can beat you, but the best part is that he knows you know he’s going to beat you. And I think that just adds to it.
CURTIS STRANGE: And you know he knows he knows he’s going to beat you.
Q. Another Tiger question. There’s that quote that came from Notah Begay in the Sports Illustrated story saying that Tiger aiming for 20 majors let alone breaking Jack’s record. Given where he is, given how he’s playing now, how possible is that, how difficult will that be for him to not only get past Jack but then hit 20?
ANDY NORTH: I think first of all, it’s very important for Tiger to win his next major. It’s been a while.
And Curtis mentioned it a little earlier. If he happened to win at Augusta next week, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised what he did after that, because I think this is just one of those things that get a little bit of monkey off your back or whatever you want to call it, that once he knows he can win major championships again, the way he’s starting to play, and we saw signs of it last year. He started hitting the ball very well, but he wasn’t scoring, he wasn’t making putts, whatever, but he still won three times last year.
I think if he wins his next major fairly soon, say this year, I think he’s got a really good chance of getting to Jack’s number and maybe more.
CURTIS STRANGE: Notah said that he would get to 20? Is that what you quoted?
Q. I thought the quote was it might have been Notah, might have been somebody else who said he’s not just aiming to break Jack’s record, he’s not aiming for that, whatever, he wants 20 or more, something along those lines. How difficult would that be?
CURTIS STRANGE: Well, Andy said it best. He’s aiming toward No. 15 right now. I don’t think he’s thinking 20. That would be getting a little bit ahead of yourself, especially in this dry spell that he’s had.
You know, I go back and forth. I went on record last year saying I don’t think he’d break Jack’s record, but he wasn’t playing well, and I just don’t know. And I think we’ve come to realize that Tiger don’t bet against him, but he’s still got to have a as they said, a Phil like career to break Jack’s record. He’s got to win five more, and that’s a tough thing to do. And because of his age, because of his body, although he says he’s healthy now and he looks healthy, he’s dealing with things in his life that we all have to deal with. He’s a single parent. We were parents. The kids are growing. You want to attend games. You want to get on the road.
There’s a lot of things that are part of the dynamic that pull at you, and we all know he’s extremely focused and all that other BS, and he is, but it affects you.
You know what I like to answer? I like to say I hope he gets to 17. I hope he gets to 17, because golf is going to be on the front page of every newspaper in the world when he goes for that 18.
But anyway, who knows.
Q. Tiger has won six times in the last two years, and he’s back to No. 1, but yet there are still some people who say he won’t be completely back until he wins a major. Is that a fair statement, number one? And number two, do you think that puts a little more heat on him to put more fuel in his fire to go out there and win and shut everybody up for good?
ANDY NORTH: I think Tiger really likes to shut people up, first of all, so that always fuels his fire.
CURTIS STRANGE: You know, it’s back to what is he going to be back to the game he had in 2000 or 2001? Probably not. Is he back to being a consistent contender, an intimidating figure? Yeah, I think he’s very, very close to being back in that respect. Is he back to winning majors? Well, we have yet to see.
I think it’s probably the jury is still out until he does win his next major, from I guess a media standpoint and from the public standpoint, as well.
ANDY NORTH: He mentioned in an interview a week or so ago, they asked him the question are you back, and he said I don’t know if I’m back or not. I just want to get better. I want to be a better player now than I’ve ever been. I’m a different player, but there’s no reason I can’t be better. And if he’s thinking that, I think there’s a really good chance that he can keep improving.
He’s so driven. There’s so many of us that you have a little bit of success and you’ve reached goals that I don’t know what Curtis’ goals when he came on Tour is, but I thought if a guy can win a major championship, that’s the greatest thing to ever happen to him. He’s thinking he wants to win 15 or 20 of them. So he is still really grinding away trying to reach goals that he set out there, and as long as a player can do that, I think he can stay very current, and as Curtis said, it sounds like he’s healthier now than he’s probably been in four or five years, and he might be a younger 37 year old than he was an old 32 year old.
You know, there’s a lot of years he’s got left, and the whole thing is if he stays mentally sharp and really wants to be competitive, and it sounds like he does.
Q. I wanted to ask you about Phil. Another kind of uneven buildup to the Masters. He gets the pretty incredible win in Phoenix with the low scores and then has been just up and down since then. It seems like he can go into a Masters this way and it really doesn’t matter. Where is your assessment, for both of you guys, on where is Phil at, and do you wonder sometimes about Phil has to be motivated to play well, that he just doesn’t play well week in and week out, and it depends on the tournament on the course and whether he’s motivated?
CURTIS STRANGE: I think that, yeah, the older you get, the lesser events are tough to get excited for. That’s part of the motivation, somehow finding your way or fighting your way into contention on the weekend. Then everything else kicks in.
But Phil has always been like this, and I think that’s why we love watching him and love watching him play and the way he plays. He’s exciting. Sometimes it’s when is the train wreck going to come.
For all intents and purposes he probably should have won the Masters last year. He certainly played well enough except for that one hole on the front side and struggled after that.
But anyway, he has stated and he’s shown that Augusta is a different place. He gets motivated by it, he loves to play it. He has less pressure on him because of the accuracy thing off the tee. He has a little more room off most of the holes. And he just seems to elevate his game and focus and everything at Augusta. And it shows that way.
So I don’t really give much credit or much weight to well, I give a lot of weight to current form except for Phil at Augusta. I think he’ll always somehow fight and be around or in contention on the weekend because he likes the place.
ANDY NORTH: He drives in the driveway and a switch goes on there. It doesn’t matter how he’s been playing. I think we saw that. He went and played a couple of practice rounds at Augusta before Doral, went down there and played a great first round, and then it went south a little bit. He had a good weekend in Houston. I think if there’s a golf course and we all experience that as players. There are certain places you went to it didn’t matter how you were playing, you just had a such a good feel about it. You knew you could play well there.
And as you know, so much of it is just the confidence that you have. And Phil is at a stage right now in his life where if he wins ten more tournaments, it doesn’t make any difference to him. If he wins two more majors, that’s a big deal. So these are the weeks that he lives for.
Q. Justin Rose certainly here in the States seems to strike me as one of the quietest No. 3s in the world we’ve had in a while. What do you respect about Justin and his game and also the fact that he was one of those next Tiger guys when he was pretty young, and he seems to have handled it really well.
ANDY NORTH: At the beginning of the year I picked Justin Rose to win a major championship this year. I think he’s got an enormous amount of game. He has some length. He has some maturity. There aren’t any real weaknesses in his game, and I think his time is coming. I think his time is here to be a major champion. And if nothing showed that more so, how he finished off the Ryder Cup. The putts he made against Phil, the match he had against Phil was unbelievable.
He’s a great player, and he’s very, very well liked, and he has a really nice demeanor about him on the golf course. I think he’s got a real good chance to win a major championship. Will it be at Augusta? I’m not so sure. But I think he’s got a chance to win one, and if he does that, he might win multiple majors.
CURTIS STRANGE: Yeah, I would just say let’s don’t put too much weight in him supposedly not finishing off tournaments here on the weekend. I think he’s a wonderful player, and his record at Augusta is very good, and I just think he’s growing, he’s maturing, and as Andy said, his time is going to come.
Those who know the game think the world of Justin Rose’s game, and I think he’s a wonderful player.
Q. With regard to Rory, and I know Andy and Curtis, you addressed the equipment thing a little bit, but with regard to the No. 1 ranking thing, I covered a bunch of the tournaments as he was struggling a little bit before Tiger took over the No. 1 ranking, and I’m just kind of wondering what you feel like that dynamic is, maybe as you observed him. Do you think that added a little pressure of him trying to live up to that as he was trying to work his way getting his game back into the way it was last year?
CURTIS STRANGE: Absolutely it adds more pressure, and I think you it just feels like you have to perform every time out on the golf course. Now, you want to. But I think it adds more pressure to perform up to that No. 1 ranking every day you go out there.
And I think being so young, experience has a lot to do with how you handle that, and although he’s won two majors, he’s got a lot of pressure on him right now, and he’s in love. Things are good. He’s not playing his best golf right now, but things are still pretty good for Rory.
PAUL AZINGER: And you know what else, I remember last year in the middle of the year, the big question was what’s wrong with Rory, and he wins the PGA by eight shots and ended up being Player of the Year, and really I think the bar and the standard that Rory is measured by is Tiger Woods, and he’s not Tiger Woods. He’s more like Phil Mickelson or like Ernie Els or somebody like that. He’s more normal.
Tiger is in a place that we may never see again and we may have never seen in the past. Even the great Jack Nicklaus may not have done what Tiger has done. But Tiger has jammed the bar so high for the No. 1 player that a guy like Rory has a standard that’s really impossible to live up to. And you know what, you say he’s in love and he is in love. He’s got a girlfriend, but he also just had a divorce, and he divorced equipment that he loves. He didn’t sign this Nike contract because he loves the equipment, we all know that. He signed the contract because nobody could possibly turn those numbers down, and
CURTIS STRANGE: Nobody signs a contract because you love the equipment, because all the equipment is good.
PAUL AZINGER: That’s right. He’s got to fall back in love with his golf clubs, and Rory is in a he’s just in a situation where he’s being measured by Tiger Woods, I believe, and Tiger Woods standard. Rory missed seven cuts one year a couple years ago, Tiger has missed eight cuts in 17 years. They’re not the same guy.
So I feel for him, and Curtis is right, there’s more pressure on him.
Q. Zinger, Andy and Curtis addressed this a minute ago regarding Tiger. I know being with him at Bay Hill the other day, I asked him if he felt in his mind he was truly back until he wins a major, and as you know, the way Tiger is, he kind of bristles at that notion, takes umbrage to that. But I have to feel in his mind he truly isn’t back until he wins a major championship. I wonder what your take is on that?
PAUL AZINGER: It’s like he says. I can relate to it a little bit because I was always asked the question am I back after I was sick, when I came back after I was sick. Of course I was back, I just wasn’t as good. Tiger has been back, he’s won six times in the last year and a half, he’s won three or four events this year, and he’s getting his opportunity at the Masters. To me the anticipation is almost like a heavyweight fight; when Ali is getting ready to step into the ring with Foreman or Frazier or when Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns are about to step into the ring or Mike Tyson against Riddick Bowe, and I think the anticipation for this Masters, to see if Tiger can win four out of five and get his first major now that he’s making every putt.
Let’s face it, no one on the face of the earth has ever putted like Tiger Woods putts, especially under pressure. Now that he’s putting good again, he can finish dead last in fairways hit at Bay Hill and win like he did finishing dead last at Torrey Pines and winning. Nobody else can do that. I’ve played Bay Hill since I was in college, and if you don’t hit fairways at Bay Hill, you shouldn’t be in contention, and he wins because of the way he putts.
And so for me and another thing about Tiger, too, and I’m so excited about this Masters, but another thing about Tiger is he feels pressure like everyone else. He just deals with it better. And the pressure that he’s feeling going into this Masters is real. He puts it on himself, and he put it on him by asking him questions like that at Bay Hill. Are you all the way back? And so that’s why I’m anticipating this Masters as much as any one I’ve ever watched, to see how he deals with it.
Q. I was wondering what’s your take on this year’s run of all American winners on the Tour and specifically how does it play against the majors where internationals have won eight of the last 12 and three of the last five Masters?
ANDY NORTH: Well, I wish I had a good answer for you there. I don’t think it’s any different to some of the years when you have a group of young guys that win or you have a bunch of old guys that win or you have a bunch of the Euros that win. How do you explain that they’ve won all these majors?
I think it’s just ebbs and flows. There’s some good young American players that have stepped up and played already, and it does help when Tiger wins three of them. That changes the dynamics. And Phil got his. You go back two years, neither one of them won.
There’s this period of time in our game a couple years ago where everybody talked about all these young guys and all this great success everybody was having. Well, there were 10 wins a year there that wouldn’t have been there that they had a chance to win because Tiger and Phil weren’t winning. Now they’re back winning, and it changes the dynamics again.
CURTIS STRANGE: Yeah, and I agree with Andy, but also at the majors there’s probably it’s probably, other than the World Golf Championships more international stars in those tournaments, so obviously the numbers, percentages are going to be more in the favor to win.
But I just think it’s cyclical, that’s all. You look at a few years ago, we were talking about where are all the good young players, and they weren’t around then, but they are now.
Q. I think I remember a couple years or so ago, too, it was nothing but international guys that were winning the Masters, when is an American guy going to win that tournament again, and it’s come up with Bubba and then obviously Tiger and Phil in the years that they’ve won. But I mean, it’s just folks, especially the TV guys are making a whole lot about all these Americans are winning, all these Americans are winning. I mean, it’s a good thing for American golf, but the internationals win the majors more than it seems than the American guys do.
PAUL AZINGER: Well, get ready for this because I think it can also be an indicator. If you go back to when all the foreigners were winning the Masters, the indicator as it turned out to be is that they are all Hall of Fame players. Sandy Lyle is in the Hall of Fame, Faldo is in the Hall of Fame, Langer is in the Hall of Fame. The guys that were winning the Masters now are Hall of Famers, and maybe the indicator is that it’s going to shift now that the Americans, even though you have all these foreign players on this Tour, maybe the Americans, maybe this is the beginning of the indicator that these guys are going to be the dominant force, and then it could be like Andy said. But four of the wins I don’t know tournaments there have been this year, but four of them are from Mickelson and Tiger Woods themselves.
I think there may be this indicator where this new class of Americans may be getting ready to step up and be some Hall of Famers.
CURTIS STRANGE: Can I say one more thing about that? Paul makes a good point. We have a lot of good young players, but let’s not forget about Louis Oosthuizen and Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy and Luke Donald. Not to contradict what Paul just said, but there’s potential Hall of Famers right there if they develop and mature and stay with it. I mean, they have wonderful talent.
So I just think the world of Oosthuizen’s swing and Justin Rose’s swing. It’s incredible. We make such a big thing about where are you from, but it’s a world game now as we know, and there are great teachers all over the world and there are great athletes all over the world playing this game. They could show up from anywhere in a day’s time and it wouldn’t surprise me.
PAUL AZINGER: It’s true, and I think rather than knowing the answer to this question that you ask, it’s a compelling question, but maybe rather than knowing the answer, maybe it asks another question. Are these the future Hall of Famers that we’re being able to watch right now?
Q. I’ve got two kind of related questions, and the first one is sort of softballish but it’s useful to me if you answer. What makes the Masters the most viewed popular special tournament?
ANDY NORTH: Well, I can start. There’s still snow up here on the ground in the Midwest. People are looking for something sunny and bright.
CURTIS STRANGE: Bobby Jones, Clifford Roberts, history, tradition, go to the same venue, which is the prettiest place that you would ever go to. Help me here, guys. That’s why
ANDY NORTH: I think the venue you hit on is very, very important. You sit home and you remember Tiger chipping in at 16 or Jack making the putt at 17 or Watson making the putt at 17 because you watch the same golf course. You don’t have that same feel at the U.S. Open or the Open Championship or the PGA because you’re playing different golf courses, or maybe you’re lucky that, oh, yeah, I remember Curtis making this putt back when he won here.
But the Masters is so special because everybody knows what to expect on the back nine, what to expect at 13, what to expect at 15. That goes a long way for people turning in.
PAUL AZINGER: Yeah, everybody has a Masters memory. The familiarity of that golf course is common to the viewer maybe from a slightly different perspective as it is to the player that’s been there 15 or 20 times and played in that event.
I want to give credit to CBS and the way they present the event, as well, and the music that’s attached to it and the voices that are attached to it. I think all of that combined makes it the most anticipated golf tournament of the year.
Q. Regarding the broadcast, what are you allowed to say and not say? For instance, I know you can’t say fans, you’re supposed to say patrons. What kind of directives do you get and what are you directed away or encouraged not to talk about?
CURTIS STRANGE: I don’t get any directive. There’s certainly some phrases they want to use such as patrons, and that’s fair enough, and there’s a couple others. But you know, I think more so than that, I think I respect the place so much, and it’s a different golf tournament to do on television. There’s such a dignity about it and a respect about it that you want to do your best job, and all we’re trying to do is bring the game closer to the viewer.
Sometimes we overstate, sometimes we overspeak, and we try not to there because the pictures are worth a thousand words.
PAUL AZINGER: Yeah, it’s kind of like having a conversation with Bobby Knight or a political figure or a military general or something. There’s just a certain kind of way that you’re going to communicate that’s different than if you’re going to if we’re all going to communicate when we’re hanging out together.
Ordinarily I think the best dynamic for a telecast is when you can just sort of be yourself. But there’s something about Augusta that kind of demands that you are actually even a little better than you are normally, better than yourself, where you’re not going to walk up to Barack Obama or George W. Bush and say, hey, man, how’s it going. But I’m going to say that to Curtis. It’s almost like Augusta just out of respect, you just are different there. I don’t know how to explain it. Hopefully that explains it.
Q. But you don’t really get any, please avoid these phrases?
PAUL AZINGER: No, I’ve never presented a set of dos and don’ts if that’s what you’re asking.
CURTIS STRANGE: No, no, we haven’t, no.
Q. I’ll direct my question to Andy. My question to Andy is about Steve Stricker who turned 46 a few weeks ago. Only a couple of guys have won majors at that age or older, and one of them is named Nicklaus. So my question is has the door closed on Steve or do you think it’s still open a bit?
ANDY NORTH: I still think it’s open, for a couple of reasons. One, Steve over the last five years has really understood himself exceptionally well and what he needs to do to play well. And I think he’s even taken that a step further this year where he has announced he’s going to play 10 or 11 events. He has decided that when he goes to an event, he’s going to be 100 percent prepared and 100 percent committed to play his best golf that week, and I think that was a real issue for Steve for years. He cares deeply about being home with his family, and he has I think there are a lot of weeks he was on the road playing he didn’t want to be there. And we all know that you’re not going to be very good if you don’t want to be there and you haven’t committed 100 percent.
And Steve over the last four, five, six years has created a golf swing that is so repeatable and is so simple, and he has turned himself into a very good striker of the golf ball again, and as we know, he’s a wonderful putter. And as well as he can putt and the style of game he plays where he’s very interested in putting the ball in play, putting it in the fairway, hitting the proper shot to the green and giving himself a lot of birdie opportunities, with the way he putts, I think he’s going to have a lot of chances to win majors. He’s the kind of guy that could maybe contend up to he’s 50 years old in major championships if he still is able to keep his length, which he’s been able to do.
PAUL AZINGER: Most players as they get older, their short game is not as good. I mean, they just don’t putt as well, and that hasn’t been the case for Steve, so I agree that he still has the door is still open. I think the door is still wide open for Stricker.
CURTIS STRANGE: The only thing I’ll add is that it would be probably the most popular win in the locker room if he won.
ANDY NORTH: If Steve were to win at Augusta this next week, you’d better be there for the press conference on Sunday because it might be the last time you ever talk to him. He might just ride off on a white horse into the sunset.
Q. Paul, this is a question that surrounds a lot of sports and we’ve seen it in golf in recent years. Which do you think is better for the game, a domination by a big player, well known, loved or hated, or an open period like we’ve had in recent years with a lot of winners and first time winners?
PAUL AZINGER: Well, I think it would be a difficult argument that the game would be better off without the dominant Tiger Woods or that the game would have been better off without a dominant Greg Norman. I think that the fact that Tiger kind of tripped and fell a little bit and became this figure that’s more scrutinized and either loved or hated I think is actually helpful, too. A lot of people tune in to watch him fail, a lot of people tune in because they love him still, and I believe the sport is better off with a dominant figure, a dominant franchise, a dominant Michael Jordan. Dominance I think is something that people are drawn to.
Q. Can you talk about how the pressure of Augusta perhaps presents a different challenge for the players, particularly Sunday on the final nine? And for Curtis, can you talk about your close call in 1985 a little bit?
CURTIS STRANGE: Well, since you brought that up, you know, I think it depends on where you are in your career, how much pressure you feel and how you handle it on the back side of Augusta. It was my first time to really have a chance to win a major, and the pressure was enormous. I don’t want to talk about me, but I think I relate to a lot of the why do we not see a gosh, a guy who’s won just a few tournaments or maybe just one or two or three, just a few tournaments win there? It’s because of the pressure. I think it’s because it’s a local knowledge golf course, as well. But you go into the back side and you know the history of every hole. I don’t care who you are. And you know what winners and losers have done on every hole subconsciously, and you know you have to play well on the par 5s. You know you have to avoid the big mistake. You know you have to and you can’t afford to really make any mistakes if you’re going to win because somebody is going to shoot 32 or 33.
It’s enormous pressure because the place, the beauty, the patrons. You know it all. I mean, when you walk and you talk about Sunday afternoon, and I understand, but the whole place the entire week from Monday through Sunday is different, because you know, you’re rubbing shoulders in my case with Sam Snead and Jack was still so competitive and Art Wall and Bob Goalby and Doug Ford and all the past champions. That in itself, you know they’re hanging out, and it continues the entire week, the history and the golf course. When Bobby Jones was still alive and Clifford and all of that combined when you’re a young player trying to win Augusta, it’s almost insurmountable to me.
And then as you create but as Paul said, or Andy, one of them, Tiger still gets nervous because they want to win this place, and they know all of that that we just talked about. But Sunday afternoon at Augusta, it’s pressure packed, and I don’t know how close Andy and Paul came, but it’s a very, very delicate nine holes that you have to play so cautiously aggressive, cautiously aggressive.
PAUL AZINGER: And again, it’s the familiarity Curtis is talking about, because there’s no player pulling in there that’s naïve about what the Masters is all about. There’s no naïveté there. There’s this complete knowledge of the history, because who possibly could qualify for that tournament that didn’t love golf enough to watch it on TV every year. Everybody watches the Masters.
You know, plus the fact that every hole can be birdied and every hole can be double bogeyed, and it is a game of degrees and inches. So a degree or two of that club face can make the difference between a birdie and a double bogey at Augusta National, and when your eyeballs are flashing because your heart is hitting you so hard in the chest from the inside out and you’ve got to deal with degrees and inches, it’s a hard game.
But the great thing is somebody is going to pull it off, and when they do, they’re revered for it. That’s what makes it so great.
Q. We’ve been talking a lot about the pros today. What can U.S. Amateur champion Steven Fox take from playing in the Masters, from perhaps future financial gain to the experience of playing for a third time against PGA TOUR pros, and then how would you describe the success of former U.S. Amateurs dating back to ’97 in Matt Kuchar?
PAUL AZINGER: This has to be a Curtis or Andy answer because I know Curtis stayed in the Crow’s Nest, right, Curtis?
CURTIS STRANGE: I did, twice.
You know, I think the main thing for him is to keep his enjoyment just enjoy the week, do the very best you can. But I think from a player perspective, pace yourself, don’t play too much, don’t practice too much, go home. Do your homework and go home, because you want to have some energy for Thursday and Friday.
When I was an amateur twice, I was exhausted by Thursday morning. You know, the pressure on you, and he’s going to play the defender still plays with the defender?
Q. That’s correct, he’s paired with Bubba and Webb.
CURTIS STRANGE: Okay, well, that even adds to the pressure. Enjoy the pairing. Enjoy the two days and hopefully it’s four days.
But whatever he does, he’s going to learn a great deal. He’s going to watch a lot of great players. It’s great fun.
Is he staying in the Crow’s Nest?
Q. He’ll stay there early in the week and then move to a house during competition.
CURTIS STRANGE: You know, I’ve got to tell you, that’s a smart move, too. Staying in the Crow’s Nest just puts added pressure on you. You never leave the compound, which is fun. I don’t know much about his game, but obviously he’s a hell of a player because he won the Amateur. Enjoy the week. My gosh, it’s a wonderful opportunity the Masters gives those few lucky amateurs that can play.
Q. And how would you kind of evaluate the professional careers of recent U.S. Amateur champions?
CURTIS STRANGE: Well, you’ve got Kuchar who’s doing well. He’s matured a lot in the last couple years with his golf game. He’s figured it out. He’s really playing consistently well.
Moore has played well. It’s like anything else. The top college player, does he go on to become a top pro, the top amateur, the U.S. Amateur? You know, Andy was a top amateur, too, and some develop and some don’t. Some peak early, some don’t. Others mature early, others mature when they’re a 30 year old. It’s a very fickle and tough game.
I’ve got to tell you, Ryan Moore has done pretty well. I expect him to continue. Kraft has not.
It’s called talent. If you have it, you’ll do well.
PAUL AZINGER: I have a theory.
My theory is that if you can shave early on, you have the potential to peak early when you’re an amateur and then fall away. But if you can’t grow a quality beard, but when you’re winning the amateur, the likelihood is that you’ll peak later in life like Kuchar, who probably still can’t grow a beard. Kuchar will be better in his 40s than he is now. That’s my theory. It might be horse****, but I like it.
ANDY NORTH: In your initial question, part of that question was about the riches of being a good player, and I think sometimes the top guys get so caught up into if I do this and I’m going to turn pro and I’ve got this agent and I’m going to go do this, and it’s money, instead of going through the process of being a good player that a lot of the players that are maybe 25th or 30th ranked coming out of college go through, and they learn to deal with some of the issues and problems that maybe the best player doesn’t because it’s been a little bit easier for him from sponsor exemptions and contracts up front where you make some money early on.
You know, unfortunately the financial end of it sometimes isn’t nearly as important as the developmental areas, and sometimes the top guys get some money early and they don’t develop.
PAUL AZINGER: You know, the best example of that is probably Michelle Wie, the greatest raw talent of all time, and it just hasn’t materialized.
Q. I just was wondering if you guys, knowing what it takes to play golf at the highest level, if you see any correlation between Tiger seemingly being happy off the course and with his resurgence this year. Can we make anything of that?
PAUL AZINGER: I believe that Tiger got had to get to a point where he could forgive himself for some of the off course things that happened. He has to be at peace with himself, and everyone has to be at peace with themselves to be a decent player. I just think he had to forgive himself first.
Some people will never forgive Tiger for what happened, but that’s unimportant to his success. For a person who makes mistakes in their life, they have to have the ability to forgive themselves before they can come to grips and really have that peace again that I think is required for Tiger to play the way he has.
So I think it’s a good sign for him personally that he’s playing the way he’s playing.
ANDY NORTH: You very seldom see a player play exceptionally well when they’ve got issues going on off the golf course. The more comfortable you are off the golf course, generally the more comfortable you’ll be on it. And if Tiger has found a happy spot, that’s great. It’s only going to help him in the long run.
Q. Paul, this is for you. The other guys were asked earlier about it having been eight years now since Tiger last won at the Masters, 2005. Two quick things on that: First, are you surprised it’s been that long? He did contend in six of the seven since but hasn’t won it since then. And do you have any theories as to why he’s had difficulty there?
PAUL AZINGER: Well, obviously the off the course emotion, the divorce and all that, the fact that he had a knee injury, and he changed coaches again. I mean, you’re either going to be an artist or an engineer or you’re going to be kind of a blend of the two things together, and I think Tiger’s mental ability dropped, as well. People were saying, oh, everyone is catching up, the players are better, they’re not intimidated by Tiger anymore, and I totally disagree. Tiger dropped to the level.
There’s great players. When Rory wins the U.S. Open and the PGA by eight shots, nobody was going to beat him those weeks I’m guessing. But I don’t believe I believe the gap between Tiger and the next best guy may be the size of the Grand Canyon again if he putts the way he’s continuing to putt, if he continues to putt that way.
I just feel like Curtis pointed out on the air, and I don’t remember if it was last year or the year before when he had a chance to win, on 15 he had an eagle putt. Was that last year or the year before?
Q. Two years ago.
PAUL AZINGER: It was a shortish putt, probably somewhere around four or five feet for eagle that would have grabbed the lead, and he missed it, and he flinched on that putt, and we all saw it, and Curtis said it, he said it plain as day, and I think he has moved beyond because of his confidence level that guy that twitched on that putt a little bit.
I feel like it’s his to lose. It’s all on him this week. If Tiger plays well, what does it matter what the other ones do? That’s the way I feel about this week.
Q. I had two questions. One was about how you feel and what has it meant for golf that Bubba won the Masters and how he what he brings to the game and how he has handled being a major winner and that responsibility, being that he’s a different character from the average golfer. And the second thing was about the South African golfers. You brought it up earlier. It started with Ernie and we saw it with Charl Schwartzel, and Curtis, you talked about Louis Oosthuizen, and Trevor Immelman. Where do you see the South Africans for this week, and in general where it started with Ernie, is this just going to continue where there’s younger guys coming up the ranks not only for this week, but where do you see South African golf going in major championships and in general?
CURTIS STRANGE: Well, as we said earlier we were talking about the Europeans winning a lot of majors and the Americans winning a lot of tournaments on the Tour this year. It’s also cyclical. South African golf starting back with Gary Player has had a wonderful run, especially in the era of Ernie Els and those you just talked about. You know, there could be another wave from that area, or there could be a dry spell. We just don’t know. I know that golf is a huge deal down in that area of the world, and good teachers and good players, and the more Ernie Els and Charls and Louises that come from that area, the more players will gravitate to the game. So that’s a good thing. But it’s just so cyclical, we never know.
You know, Bubba has been fun. He’s fun to watch. He’s entertaining. You know, I’m a fan like everybody else, when I turn on the TV and he’s on there or Phil’s on there, you watch because they’re not going to hit it down every fairway and hit it on every green, and they have an incredible ability to navigate out of that trouble, and it’s fun to watch.
He’s got personality. That’s good, too. You know, people like watching the home run.
Yeah, he’s got all the personality and charisma. I just think he’s got a wonderful way about him on the golf course.
PAUL AZINGER: Yeah, I agree. The cool thing about Bubba is that he’s so unpolished. He’s not that groomed kind of player that grew up in college with a golf coach and he doesn’t have perfect hair, he doesn’t have the perfect technique and he’s not wearing perfect clothes. It’s just Bubba being Bubba, and it’s fun to watch. It’s unique. It’s unique to what we have now, and it’s impressive actually.
You know, we got to watch a lot of shots that Bubba played last year that probably didn’t make air. We were watching them on 3D. And I’ll tell you what, normally if you’re going to win the Masters you have to be the best putter that week. If Bubba Watson would have putted well at that tournament last year, he’d have won by five or ten shots.
Yeah, the South Africans, don’t forget Nick Price, either, Mark McNulty. It’s just a breeding ground for greatness and great players. Oosthuizen seems like to me the logical guy to continue that trend of maybe a Masters winner. Who knows, he may win the Masters. But yeah, the climate is nice down there in South Africa, and I’m never surprised when you see another really great South African.
ANDY NORTH: Yeah, you mentioned Ernie Els a lot. What he’s done with his foundation, getting these younger players engaged and giving them a chance to compete around not only the countryside there but around the world, those youngsters, is very important. I think as in any area, if you have someone you can look up to and you’re 13 or 14 years old and you see somebody else have success, there’s no reason in the world you can’t do the same thing, and I think that’s been very, very positive for so many young people in South Africa or that part of the world.
As far as Bubba, Bubba plays old school golf. He curves it, he does things that so many players in today’s world don’t do, and you add that, the distance that he can hit the ball, I mean, he has a little bit of that John Daly flair that so many people gravitate to, and that’s great for our business.