03/16/2012 08:34 am ET

Masters 2012: Tiger Woods Is Still 'Favorite' According To Golfer Graeme McDowell

By Jim McCabe, Golfweek

With clocks turned forward and days getting longer, thoughts of spring arrive with greater ease and comfort. Of course, most thoughts travel in one direction this time of year -- through Augusta, Ga., because you can almost smell the azaleas.

We can only guess how Tiger Woods’ Masters preparation has changed in light of the Achilles injury that forced him out of the WGC-Cadillac Championship on Sunday. What we don’t know is how it colors the starting line, because many would have suggested that Woods, though without an official victory in some 27 months, is in the pole position, so to speak.

“I think Tiger’s the favorite,” Graeme McDowell offered.

When asked why, the 2010 U.S. Open champion pointed to Woods’ four victories and dozen top 10s at the Masters. “His record at Augusta isn’t bad, is it?”

No, it isn’t, not when you consider that he’s riding a streak of seven straight years at T-6 or better and while many will emphasize that Woods hasn’t won a green jacket since 2005, it’s ludicrous to suggest he doesn’t drive down Magnolia Lane with an abundance of confidence. Now, whether he’ll arrive healthy is a question only Woods can answer, though don’t hold your breath. He’ll keep that to himself.

McDowell did agree that his good friend from Northern Ireland, Rory McIlroy, “will have a fair bit of expectations going in (because) he’s probably expected to win the Masters.”

As he explained how McIlroy’s game suits the first major of the season, McDowell suggested that if his younger friend ever designed a course, “it would look an awful lot like Augusta,” and he rattled off holes such as nine and 10, only he caught himself.

“Forget 10,” McDowell said, and reporters laughed, for obvious reasons. It was a snap hook and several pinball shots off some Georgia pines that did in McIlroy at the par-4 10th, his triple bogey setting in motion a back-nine collapse. Yet all joking aside, McIlroy in just three trips to the Masters has proved himself to be a formidable challenger, so toss him in there with Woods and Phil Mickelson as leading favorites.

Choosing a different plan of attack than many of his colleagues, McIlroy will skip each of the next three PGA Tour tournaments – this week’s Transitions Championship, then the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Shell Houston Open. Instead, he will work with his longtime swing coach, Michael Bannon, who flew in from Northern Ireland on Sunday.

Mostly they will work at the Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla., but McIlroy figures he’ll sneak up to Augusta for at least two days later this week.

These are heady times for McIlroy, the reigning U.S. Open champion, the World No. 1, and a young man who has a win, two seconds, a third and a fifth in five starts in Europe and the U.S. already this year, his stroke-play average for 16 rounds a robust 68.25.

McDowell says get used to it.

“It’s just the beginning (for Rory),” he said. “I expect to win more majors. I know Rory McIlroy will win more majors.”

If McIlroy is trying to figure out how to get in tune for the Masters, he is not alone, especially among the younger players.

Rickie Fowler, for one, does not think he will take in any practice rounds at Augusta National until the week of the tournament. After having finished at 2 under for a share of 45th at Doral, Fowler said he would practice at his home course, The Medalist, for most of this week, then head back home to California.

There, Fowler said he’d do some corporate business, visit Scotty Cameron’s studio, and catch up with family and friends.

He’ll play next in Houston, the week before the Masters, and that’s a change-up from a year ago when Fowler chose to immerse himself in practice rounds at Augusta National the week prior. But he liked what he saw when he played Houston in 2010, back when he wasn’t in the Masters, and thinks similarly to many others – that it’s not only a good tune-up to the season’s first major, it’s a terrific tournament.

“Last year, I did a lot of prep work prior to the Masters. I spent a lot of time with Phil (Mickelson),” Fowler said. “This year, I’m not so much into worrying about learning the course. I feel like I’ll use (Houston) to get my game ready.”

Though he has yet to break through for that first PGA Tour victory, Fowler has proved to be a dynamo of sorts at the annual Seminole Pro-Member, played the day after the Honda Classic. Fowler and his onetime Walker Cup captain, Buddy Marucci, earned a second straight victory in the gross division, though this year’s triumph took a bit more effort thanks to buckling winds and fast-running greens.

“I was 2 over on the front and played decently,” Fowler said.

Given his exposure to Seminole and Augusta National, Fowler said he certainly understands why the legendary Ben Hogan stopped in at the famed Juno Beach, Fla., club to practice before going to the Masters.

“With the wind and the shots you have to hit into firm, fast greens (at Seminole), I can see where it would help you prepare for Augusta,” Fowler said.

• • •

POSITIVE SIDE TO A WGC: The World Golf Championships open up rich playing opportunities for players who otherwise wouldn’t have them. So when they travel long distances for what amounts to a one-shot deal and play very well, it’s hard not to take notice.

Juvic Pagunsan of the Philippines wore such a brilliant smile all week that he made Matt Kuchar look like a sour puss. Last year’s winner of the Asian Tour’s Order of Merit - which got him into the field at Doral - Pagunsan is 33, but didn’t turn pro until he was 27. He never shot over par at Doral, with rounds of 69-71-72-72 earning him a share of 35th alongside heralded names such as Dustin Johnson, Webb Simpson and K.J. Choi.

The finish was worth $60,600, which is only $31,531 less than what he made all of 2010.

But what provided a lasting memory was Pagunsan making his way from the range to the putting green to roll a few before his 12:04 tee time Saturday. It was 11:46 and a dozen fans screamed for an autograph, even though it’s doubtful they knew this was the guy who won the 2007 Pertamina Indonesia President Invitational.

Anyway, Pagunsan stopped and signed, which was a dead giveaway that he truly was new to all of this. Players simply don’t sign until after their rounds and certainly never on the way to the first tee. Yet next thing you knew, the crowd had swelled to about 20 and now it was about 11:52 and Pagunsan’s caddie clearly was nervous. Thankfully, he stepped in, pulled Pagunsan away, and the Filipino went on to shoot 72.

Hopefully those fans who missed out on Pagunsan’s autograph weren’t too disappointed.

• • •

NOT TOPS ON HIS LIST: It would be fair to say Sergio Garcia has a twisted relationship with Doral’s Blue Monster. Remember 2007, when his solid play (he finished third) in the CA Championship was overshadowed by a childish incident when he spit into the cup at the 13th green in the third round?

There haven’t been too many highlights on the course, because in eight tournaments at Doral between the old PGA Tour stop and today’s WGC event, the Spaniard has just one top 10 and has been in the 60s in just 10 of 32 rounds.

Yet he suggests “it’s too easy of a course” and while “it’s not my favorite course, I don’t dislike it.”

Even after making that 12 at the par-4 third hole Sunday?

• • •

PARTING THOUGHT: Forget the Masters. What happens if Tiger Woods can’t play the Tavistock Cup? Whom does Team New Albany call upon?