Adam Scott has champ's confidence

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- At times during his first Masters round as defending champ, Adam Scott seemed most interested in coaching Matthew Fitzpatrick, the 19-year-old amateur who was borrowed from the old set of "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?"

Scott started the day by watching the absurdly youthful-looking Fitzpatrick make a mess of the first hole of the rest of his life -- and by thinking this was the nervous wreck he himself used to be.

"Great putt," Scott told the kid after he'd saved double-bogey. "Get going now."

The boy wonder embraced the pep talk, birdied the second hole and then listened as the 33-year-old star walked him down the fairways and talked to him about the weather, his fitness routine and his playoff victory over Angel Cabrera in the rain. Anything to relax the British winner of the U.S. Amateur whose developing mind was racing at video-game speed.

Scott and Fitzpatrick looked more like a big brother/little brother routine in Wednesday's Par 3 Contest than they did competitors in the most prestigious tournament in golf. But as neighborly as Scott appeared, he made a statement Thursday that was as clear as the red numbers he kept putting on the board:

He's this year's Tiger Woods, just like he was last year's Tiger Woods.

In other words, he's most definitely the man to beat at the Masters.

Scott birdied the first hole and spent the entire day south of par, pushing it to 4 under at the 10th before he unleashed his only bad swing, the 9-iron at the par-3 12th that found the water and led to a double-bogey. Scott said he lost his focus on the shot -- and, hey, he had a pretty good excuse for it.

As he approached every tee box and green, the gallery practically treated last year's winner as if he were Arnold Palmer in his prime or Jack Nicklaus in 1986. But one particular reception impacted Scott like no other.

"The memory that will stick with me forever today was walking up to the 12th tee and everyone getting out of their seats as I approached there," he said. "It was great."

The ensuing shot was not. Maybe the moment got to him, maybe it didn't. Sometimes even the best of the best don't have a prayer at Amen Corner.

Scott three-putted the par-5s on the back for a pair of unsatisfying pars and yet still managed to finish at 3-under 69, one behind leader Bill Haas. When it was all over, his ease and confidence suggested that there would be more birdies to come over the long weekend and that he had replaced Tiger (out after back surgery) and Phil (eight shots off the lead ) as the most forbidding obstacle for the rest of the field.

And not just for this year, either. One green jacket can do that for you.

"There is a certain sense of freedom in the way you play," Scott said of the effect of finally winning a major. "And no doubt you can see that in the way Phil's played around here since breaking through [in 2004] and hitting some incredible shots that maybe if he had not had the success or the wins, he might not have hit, being a little tighter."

Scott isn't tight anymore, unless you're counting his abs. He sank those breathless putts on the 72nd hole and on the second playoff hole to beat Cabrera, to exorcise Greg Norman and the rest of Australia's Augusta National ghosts, and everything changed about his approach.

He was no longer the 30-something with the Tiger Woods talent and the Tiger Woods athleticism who had gagged away the Open Championship and who hadn't won a damn thing.

"I think in some ways [it] has taken a little pressure off me as I teed up today and kind of felt like, 'What was the worst that can happen? I'm still going to be a Masters champion,'" Scott said.

Nothing is more dangerous, tee to green, than a liberated winner with Scott's natural ability.

"There's no doubt winning the Masters last year had me a little more comfortable on the first tee than I've ever been in the past," he said, "because I didn't have the legs shaking and nerves jangling for six or seven holes, like usual."

So nothing would throw him this week, not with that green jacket in the bag. Scott served as something of an official greeter for Sunday's inaugural Drive, Chip & Putt for young boys and girls, prepping him for the pairing with Fitzpatrick. He was upgraded into the champions' locker room, where he shared a stall with Gary Player. He was the man at Tuesday night's annual champions dinner, speaking to a roomful of legends who eagerly accepted him into their club, an experience he described as surreal.

"The words they had to say about what I did last year," Scott said, "meant the world to me."

He also appeared at Wednesday night's Golf Writers Association of America dinner to accept his Player of the Year award. It all made for a busy week, and perhaps for a growing suspicion that Scott would be worn down and in no condition to win by Sunday afternoon.

He shot down that notion Thursday with his words ("It's all good vibes") and his clubs. He settled down Fitzpatrick and even survived Jason Dufner, his other partner, who chopped up the place and shot 80. Scott made five birdies and a decisive par save at the 18th in declaring that he's ready and willing to join Woods, Nicklaus and Nick Faldo as the only repeat champions of the Masters, and then some.

"I hope I get on one of those runs where I'm one of the guys who kind of develops an affinity for the golf course, like Phil Mickelson has and many other guys have as well over the years," Scott said. "I feel like the course sets up well for me, and while it's like this, I've got to take advantage of it."

Working on major title No. 2, Scott is the same age as Mickelson was when he won the first of his three green jackets. The golfer known for making women melt now makes men tremble. Scott has seven top-10 finishes in his past dozen majors, leaving his No. 2 world ranking looking like a lie.

"I played with probably the best golfer in the world today," young Fitzpatrick said.

By Sunday evening, the way Adam Scott is playing, a good bet says there won't be any "probably" about it.