AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Tiger Woods walked briskly out of the Augusta National clubhouse Tuesday morning and was headed for the first tee, unaware of a small problem his caddie had already solved.
A wooden clock at the tee box told golfers the course would open at 8, but it was only 7:25.
Steve Williams simply moved the hands back a half-hour, and when Woods arrived at 7:28, the defending champion flicked the big hand back two more minutes. Then he teed up his ball and launched a drive that landed safely just left of the massive fairway bunker.
Yes, it's always Tiger Time at the Masters.
Most of the focus at the 66th Masters is the renovation of Augusta National, which stretched the course by 285 yards and changed half of the holes.
What hasn't changed is the man to beat.
''The player to look at is the No. 1 player ranked in the world -- Tiger,'' Phil Mickelson said. ''He's the guy that everybody has got to watch out for. And given his length and accuracy and distance control, he's going to be the guy to beat.''
So, what else is new?
Woods set 20 records when he won the Masters in his professional debut in 1997, including the 72-hole scoring record (270) and the margin of victory (12 strokes).
Even more stunning was his performance last year, when he became the first player to sweep the four professional majors by holding off David Duval and Mickelson, his chief rivals, on the back nine for a two-stroke victory.
When the Masters begins Thursday, Woods will try to join Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo as the only repeat winners at Augusta National.
A repeat victory will not be the same as a repeat performance. Woods figured that out Tuesday morning when he hit an 8-iron into the first green; in past years, a drive that pure on the opening hole would have left him only a sand wedge.
Is it harder? Certainly. Some players believe the scores will be as many as three strokes higher a round because of the longer clubs required to hit into greens that are just as slick and contoured as ever.
Does that make it easier for the big hitters such as Woods, Mickelson and Duval?
''The golf course definitely favors a guy that hits the ball farther,'' Woods said. ''But you have to hit the ball straight, too. It puts a huge premium on driving the ball, and no matter who wins this tournament, their short game is going to be tested.''
That's an area that has held Woods back this year.
When he won the Masters a year ago, it was his 19th victory on the PGA Tour in 38 tournaments, an astounding rate of success.
Woods now comes into the first major championship of the year with last month's Bay Hill Invitational his only victory in 10 events dating to the World Golf Championship at Firestone in August.
Woods is ranked 138th in putting on the PGA Tour. All those putts that kept falling during his record run through the majors suddenly began missing the edge of the cup.
Still, Woods is far from concerned. He took two weeks off before the Masters to attend the wedding of a good friend in Southern California and put the finishing touches on his game.
''I felt the practice sessions I had at home were very, very positive,'' Woods said.
His swing coach, Butch Harmon, could attest to that.
Harmon walked the practice round with Woods on Tuesday. After watching him hit two delicate pitches to one of the toughest pin placements on No. 3, Harmon turned and said, ''This kid is going to be tough to beat this week.''
Woods might have some company.
For all his daring shots and unpredictable outcomes, Mickelson has been a factor the last three times he has played. He pushed Woods at Bay Hill, led at The Players Championship until a five-putt took him out of contention, and led during the weekend in Atlanta until a four-putt on Saturday and a few sloppy mistakes in the final round.
Regarded as the best player who has never won a major, Mickelson seems poised to put himself in position again.
''It's not as though my desire is going to increase,'' he said. ''My confidence has increased because I feel as though the golf course is suited to the style of play that I enjoy, and that I should have an opportunity on Sunday.
''If I'm patient, one of these years I'm going to break through.''
Duval broke through with his first major championship last year at the British Open, but the Masters is the major he covets. And while Woods has won two of the last five Masters, no one has played Augusta National better than Duval.
In the last four years he has been within one stroke of the lead on the back nine Sunday, until being knocked out by a bad decision, a bad break, putts that didn't fall or someone else playing better.
He would love to have that chance again.
No matter how different Augusta National looks, the extra length and tougher shots into the green do not change the rush of adrenaline a player gets when he's in contention late Sunday afternoon.
''It's where you want to be and how you want to feel,'' Duval said. ''You feel ecstatic and you feel sick at the same time. A lot of amazing things go through your head and through your body that day.''
Peninsula Clarion ©2014. All Rights Reserved.