Immelman Defends Masters; Crowd Eyes Tiger

Tiger Woods is back to play his first major golf tournament since his knee surgery. He'll hit the golf course in Augusta, Ga., Thursday, along with defending Masters champion Trevor Immelman.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

The Masters, golf's first major championship of the year, begins this morning with Trevor Immelman defending the title he won a year ago. But all eyes, as usual, are on the man who finished second to Immelman last year: Tiger Woods.

Commentator John Feinstein joins me now to discuss the annual quest for that coveted green jacket.

Good morning, John.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Good morning, Ari.

SHAPIRO: This is Tiger's first major since his knee surgery last June. So how fully do you think he's recovered?

FEINSTEIN: I think he's 100 percent. He won two weeks ago at Bay Hill, pulled one of his classic Tiger Woods comebacks, coming from five strokes back on the last day to win with a birdie putt on 18, just the way it seems always to be scripted for him. And he says the knee is 100 percent now. He's played in three tournaments.

The question, as will always be the case for Tiger, is: Is he going to make every putt? When he makes every putt he wins. When he putts like a mere mortal, then sometimes he finishes second, like last year.

SHAPIRO: Would you consider him to be the favorite this time around?

FEINSTEIN: I think he is absolutely the favorite. Now, in golf being the favorite is different then, say, in tennis, where you only have to beat seven players to win a major championship. In golf, in this case, he's got to beat 95 others. So the Vegas bet is always Tiger versus the field. And I think that's the bet this week: Can he beat the entire field? The chances are good but not overwhelming, because that's the way golf is.

SHAPIRO: Now the guy who won last year's final two majors, Padraig Harrington, is not getting a lot of attention this time around. Why do you think that is?

FEINSTEIN: Well, part of it is because Tiger Woods didn't play in those two majors because of the knee surgery. So it's almost as if people want to put an asterisk next to them, which is completely unfair. Harrington played great golf, winning the British Open and the PGA. He's won three majors overall. To me, no matter what the world rankings say, he's the number two player right now. And he should be getting more attention because of what he's accomplished, whether Tiger was there or not.

SHAPIRO: And let's run through a few of the other big names playing. There's Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els. What do you think of these players?

FEINSTEIN: Well, Phil Mickelson is very comfortable here. He's won the Masters twice - 2004, 2006. He's playing very well this year. He's already won two tournaments. So I think of that group, he's the one most likely to be on the leader board on Sunday, although Ernie Els has been very close to winning here in the past. And you have to think, Ari, that at some point, Sergio Garcia, who's now close to 30 - it's hard to believe because he burst on the scene when he was 19, 10 years ago - at some point he's going to break through and win a major title. He's too good a player not to.

SHAPIRO: You know, for the last two years, relative unknowns have won the title. We mentioned Immelman a year ago. The year before that, it was Zach Johnson. Do you think there's a dark horse this year we should be on the lookout for?

FEINSTEIN: Well, my dark horse is not an unknown. And it's kind of crazy. And I'm probably jinxing him. He'll probably miss the cut. But Fred Couples, who's almost 50 - and the oldest Masters champion was Jack Nicklaus 23 years ago, when he was 46 - has played some very good golf this year. He finished third last week in Houston. And he loves this place. He won his only major here in 1992. He's been in the top 10 10 times. And as recently as three years ago, he finished third. So maybe he can have one last great burst in his career and contend on Sunday. That would certainly be a great story if he managed to do it.

SHAPIRO: What are conditions on the course like, and do you think that's likely to affect the outcome this time around?

FEINSTEIN: Well, it always does. That's a very good question. Because the weather's been cold, the course is playing fast. The balls aren't holding on the greens. And that makes it a lot more difficult, because these greens are always so slick. But they're expecting it to warm up by the time they tee it up this morning.

Assuming that happens, the greens ought to slow down at least a little bit. But I think the conditions are going to be difficult, because there's been a lot of wind and the course is very dry.

SHAPIRO: Those are the comments of John Feinstein, author of "A Good Walk Spoiled."

Thanks, John.

FEINSTEIN: Thanks, Ari.

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