TIGER Woods has already ticked one cross off his 2013 list by regaining the world No 1 spot from his Nike stablemate, Rory McIlroy.
Now Colin Montgomerie believes the American, helped by feeling love in the air again, is ready to end his major drought this week and deliver a massive boost to golf by kick-starting his bid to topple Jack Nicklaus as the game’s greatest player.
While the Scot has singled out eight players – a group, incidentally, that doesn’t include either McIlroy or defending champion Bubba Watson – as potential winners, Woods is his clear favourite for the Masters starting on Thursday after recording three wins already this year to regain the position as the world’s top-ranked player.
Montgomerie believes a handful of Americans – Keegan Bradley, Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Phil Mickelson and Brandt Snedeker – as well as Englishman Justin Rose and South African Louis Oosthuizen all have sound chances at Augusta, mainly because they’re long hitters with a high ball flight and a silky putting touch to cope with the fast undulating greens.
However, the eight-time European No 1 is backing Woods to win his first major since the 2008 US Open and reckons a combination of McIlroy joining him in the Nike camp and a romance with Lindsey Vonn, the American Olympic skiier, has put him in a position where he can feel confident about finally getting himself off the 14-major mark and closing in on the record 18 held by Nicklaus.
“I think Tiger will stand up on that first tee on Thursday in a much happier position as No 1 in the world than he ever was two or three years ago,” said Montgomerie. “The competition Rory has brought to the table is breeding higher standards and Tiger certainly doesn’t want to be world No 2 to anybody. Nothing in Tiger’s abnormal life has ever involved being No 2.
“Having been outside the top 50 at one stage, he’s worked hell of a hard to get that position back again and will not want to lose it. It’s not easy to stay No 1 at anything but, since Greg Norman held that position, I think Tiger is the only player who has felt comfortable as No 1. McIlroy, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Luke Donald all held it, but they couldn’t stay there. When you get to No 1, you feel you’re at your peak. There’s only one place to go and it’s down. To hang on to it you’ve got to improve and that’s not easy year on year. For the six years he was No 1, Norman improved and it was the same with Tiger.
“It was interesting to hear Tiger say after winning at Bay Hill that this is not him getting back to where he was. He feels he’s going to a new level, a new level of consistency, of scoring and ability. That’s what the others are starting to fear now, thinking, ‘if Tiger goes to another level, what do we do?’.
“He also seems to be in a happier place now. He has a girlfriend and seems to have his life sorted out more than a year ago, when he also won at Bay Hill but then nothing much happened at the Masters. With all of that and a new caddie [Joe LaCava started working with Woods around 18 months ago], everything is in place and I genuinely believe he’s ready to win a major again.
“If I had fifty quid to put on somebody this week, I’d put half of it on Tiger to win and the rest of it each-way on Snedeker and Rose. If Tiger starts with a 68, then we’ll be back to the feeling we had in the mid-2000s when a lot of the guys thought ‘oh God, here he comes again’.
“I think it would be very good for golf if he won a major again. We had sort of stopped talking [about] him chasing Jack’s record for about the last three or four years, but a lot of people will be turning their televisions on this week because Tiger’s back in the frame. We’ve missed the whole Tiger Woods phenomenon.”
After recording runaway wins in both the US Open and USPGA Championship in the space of 18 months, everyone was talking about the McIlroy phenomenon but, despite a much-improved performance in his final warm-up event, the Texas Open, Montgomerie doesn’t envisage seeing the Northern Irishman being in the mix-up on Sunday. Not, however, because of McIlroy’s much-publicised equipment change at the end of last year.
“A lot of stuff has been written about Rory’s change of clubs,” remarked the 2010 Ryder Cup-winning captain, who used an experience from his own career to illustrate the difference a good start can make in such a situation. “At the start of the ‘95 season, I changed from Wilson to Callaway and was fortunate in my first event, the Dubai Desert Classic, to start 68-63. Nothing else was said about it after that.
“Rory, on the other hand, hasn’t been able to put his change to sleep yet. But it’s the same shaft he was using before, the same grips and the head weight will be the same. There’s nothing wrong with the clubs. It’s up to Rory to get the belief back again to where it was when he won the last major, the USPGA Championship, by eight shots.”
For the third Masters running, Montgomerie has travelled to Augusta without his clubs. He’s part of the Sky commentary team and insists he’s beyond the point of feeling he should be out on the manicured fairways.
“The Masters and the USPGA are against me now in terms of length so I’m losing that thought that I should be here playing,” he said.
“But I’m going to really try my damndest to qualify for the US Open this year because Merion is the shortest course they’ve had for that in 20 years. I’m also keen, of course, to play in the Open Championship at Muirfield because, one, it’s in Scotland, and two, the running fairways suit me.”
lThe Masters is the first of three majors on Sky Sports this year. Watch it live in HD and 3D and on mobile devices via Sky Go.