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Two Men and a Maybe

TIMES STAFF WRITER

So, guess what words are mentioned most often at the Masters this week?

Bobby Jones?

Azaleas?

“Got any extra badges?”

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Sure, those are some really good choices, but they’re not even close to these: Tiger Woods and Ernie Els.

When the Masters begins Thursday at Augusta National, Woods and Els probably are going to get more attention than anyone else in the first major of the year, which Woods conveniently torched last year and Els is regarded as the player-most-likely-to-demolish-the-place besides Woods this time out.

The Woods-Els thing, is this a rivalry or what? Els isn’t sure it measures up to that yet.

“Rivalry? I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think there’s too much to speak of right now. I’ve been on tour five years, and Tiger’s really just started his career.

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“If you want to talk about a rivalry, that will come if we can play well together in major championships.

“Maybe this will be the start of it, but we’re two of 20 really good young players out there, so we’ll just see how we go.”

It’s an entirely sensible approach, and it’s probably much easier to say things like that after you’ve smoked Woods as Els did last month on the last day of the Bay Hill Invitational in Orlando, Fla. That’s where they played the final 36 holes together and Els finished 12 shots ahead.

Woods has four top-10 finishes in six PGA Tour events and a victory in his only European PGA Tour event. That was the Johnnie Walker Classic, where Woods shot a fourth-round 65 and came from eight shots behind to defeat Els.

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If comparisons are going to be made, Woods seems like a good choice to be making them. Here’s what Woods had to say about him and Els:

Length: “I’m longer.”

Irons: “He’s a good iron player. He hits it very straight, very accurate. Hence he’s won two U.S. Opens.”

Putting: “He’s a fantastic putter. He’s more consistent than I am.”

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Short game: “About the same.”

Don’t think that Woods is concerned only about Els, because that’s not close to true. There is the usual gang in the swing set, the younger players everyone keeps expecting to excel, such as Justin Leonard, David Duval, Phil Mickelson and Lee Westwood.

Then there is the next age group, led by Davis Love III, Tom Lehman, John Daly, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Colin Montgomerie, Fred Couples, Greg Norman and Jose Maria Olazabal.

It’s quite a long list. After studying it, Woods decided he would make it even longer, so he extended it.

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Ask Woods his biggest rivals and out comes this answer: “Every player in the field.”

Tom Kite was the distant runner-up to Woods last year, finishing 12 shots behind. After his fourth-round 70, Kite looked at the scoreboard and said ‘Well, I won my flight.”

After what Woods accomplished last year, Kite said he thinks the idea that Woods might feel pressure is sort of silly. Kite, playing in his 25th Masters, thinks Woods would be better served to feel something besides pressure.

“If I was in that position and had a green jacket? Man, I’d be free-wheeling it this year.”

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Chances are the free-wheeling would come at Augusta National’s most vulnerable positions--the four semi-short par fives.

Woods said the first two par fives, the 555-yard No. 2 and the 535-yard No. 8, are not always reachable in two. But on the back, there is the 485-yard No. 13 and the 500-yard No. 15. Those are different stories.

Augusta National plays to a par 72, but Woods said for long hitters, par is realistically a couple of shots lower.

Long hitters, and even not-so-long hitters, might notice an overabundance of pine needles that were trucked in and dumped under trees along the fairways, which isn’t merely going to improve the footing for spectators, but also prevent many balls from rolling through.

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For Woods and Els, not to mention Daly and Westwood, the trick isn’t merely launching the ball as far as humanly possible toward greens the texture of cement, or trying to win the Masters, there’s also this Youth Division thing to worry about.

Woods might be a marked man, but he isn’t going to give easily. For instance, someone asked him Tuesday what he would do if he was visited by God, who asked what one major he would like to win this year.

Woods thought about it for a moment before answering.

“I would argue with him and say, ‘Why can’t I win all four?’ ”

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That’s confidence, all right, arguing with God. We’ll see if Woods has a chance at all four--or even one--starting Thursday.

MASTERS TOURNAMENT FACTS

WHEN: Thursday-Sunday

WHERE: Augusta (Ga.) National GC

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