Beyond Woods, there are more questions as Masters begins

The major question heading into Thursday’s opening round of the Masters is simple: How will Tiger Woods play after a layoff that spanned the length of the college basketball season? We’ll soon find out.

But there are other key questions:

Will a hangover afflict several favorites?

The Shell Houston Open prides itself on having Augusta-like conditions that make for a perfect warmup event. But several big names hope their play in Houston is not a predictor of things to come.

Ernie Els finished tied for 44th. Phil Mickelson shot a second-round 76. And Padraig Harrington closed with a 77. Ugh.

Steve Stricker, in his final Masters preamble, slogged through a 79-74 weekend at Bay Hill.

“My focus was not good,” Stricker said. “Hopefully I got those shots out of my system.”

Can Fred Couples pull a Watson?

Tom Watson came within one stroke of winning the British Open at age 59. Perhaps that’s why people are giving the 50-year-old Couples a legitimate chance this week.

That, and he still hits it a mile. Many of his drives rolled to within a few feet of Woods’ during their practice round Monday. And don’t forget Couples has won three times in four starts this season on the Champions Tour.

“He’s coming into this tournament with championship trophies under his belt, holding onto these big, glass, crystal things, as well as huge checks,” Mickelson said.

Couples’ take? The 1992 champion said winning would be a “pipe dream.”

Could the weather be a factor?

Indeed. It’s expected to rain Thursday night. That could make the course play even longer than usual and spell trouble for relatively short knockers such as Stricker, Luke Donald and Mike Weir.

Was Woods serious about dialing down his emotions?

Woods said that as a consequence of being more respectful to the game — i.e. fewer flying clubs and f-bombs — he will try to “not get as hot” when he plays.

“I’m not going to be as exuberant, either,” he said. “I’ve made a conscious decision to try to tone down my negative outbursts and, consequently, I’m sure my positive outbursts will be calmed down as well.”

So, have we seen the last Woods fist pump?

“No, no, no,” Woods pal Mark O’Meara said. “He’s still going to show some emotion.”