John Huggan: Tiger Woods has Georgia on his mind

Tiger Woods receiving the green jacket from Phil Mickelson in 2005. Picture: Getty
Tiger Woods receiving the green jacket from Phil Mickelson in 2005. Picture: Getty
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AS ever, it will be the same but different. While the Augusta National course that has hosted the Masters Tournament since its inception in 1934 has undergone the usual and traditional tweak or two in the last 12 months, it is on the famously stereotypical (rich, right-wing, not youthful) and single-sex (no women) club membership roster where the biggest transformation has taken place.

Last August, more than a decade into the 21st century, Augusta National Golf Club finally tiptoed into the 20th. Only 22 years after admitting the first black member, two females – former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore, vice-president of Rainwater, a South Carolina-based private investment company – will walk the famous grounds at the end of Magnolia Lane wearing the iconic green jacket.

Although a little tardy in a world less and less tolerant of such Neanderthal nonsense, this is a welcome (albeit merely symbolic) development. Timely, too. Anything that focuses wider attention on the stubbornly all-male stance of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews has to be a positive thing. Already one is looking forward to July and the Open Championship at Muirfield, home of the equally misogynistic Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. So far fiercely defiant on this issue, the R&A will by then hopefully have recognised the moral bankruptcy of their increasingly isolated position, one that highlights their responsibility to lead golf by example rather than tradition alone.

But that is a battle for another day. This week, once the political and social issues are dispensed with, all eyes will inevitably focus on the golf. Augusta National may have myriad frustrating and easily identifiable faults – revelling in exclusion rather than embracing inclusion being the most obvious and egregious – but it must be acknowledged that they run a magnificent “toonamint”. Apart from a brief period earlier this century when former chairman Hootie Johnson led the club down a dark path of unenlightened course changes – too many trees, too much rough – the Masters routinely produces the most exciting golf of the year.

The biggest on-course storyline will be the progress of the newly minted world No.1, Tiger Woods. Already the winner of three PGA Tour events this year, the 37-year-old Californian will start as a strong and deserved favourite to hang a fifth green jacket in his closet. Not that a 15th major title will be easy to come by, even for one so driven. Almost five years have passed since Woods finished first in any of golf’s four most important events. He would be less than human if that less-than-positive thought did not cross his mind at least once between Thursday and next Sunday.

On the other hand, Woods’ excellent form this season – highlighted by some outrageously potent putting – has been duly noted by his chief rivals. He’s in their heads.

“He’s been ‘the man’ in golf for the last 15 years and it’s great for the game that he is playing well,” acknowledges world No.2, Rory McIlroy. “Everything in his game looks very solid. It seems like he is driving the ball well. His iron play has always been really, really good. And the putting tips he got from Steve Stricker at Doral recently are definitely working. He’s playing great and I know I’ll have to play at my best to beat him.”

Still, for those inclined to compare the Woods of today with, say, the man who so completely dominated the game around the turn of the century, one thing sticks out. Back in the day, when it seemed like Tiger would make every putt he looked at, an outstanding performance on the greens inevitably led to a victory in double digits.

Now, things are a little different. In each of his two most recent victories, the World Golf Championship at Doral and the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Woods has holed out as of old. Yet both times the ultimate margin of victory has been only a couple of shots.

Conclusion? Tee-to-green, the world’s best golfer is not quite what he was. “Tiger’s short game has been phenomenal and he has hit the ball well,” says 1998 Masters champion Mark O’Meara, one of Woods’ closest friends. “But as well as he used to? I don’t know about that.”

For all that, there is little doubt Woods will arrive at the scene of his maiden major victory – 16 years ago now – with more belief in his ability to win than any other player.

McIlroy, battling the still unfamiliar pressures of fame and fortune, has shown little of the form that took him to two major titles in the last two years. Three-time winner Phil Mickelson has been his usual erratic self, even if he can usually be relied upon to lift his game on a course perfectly suited to his particular range of talents. And few others jump out as serious contenders, albeit there are those who have the potential to at least press the all-conquering Woods.

“Tiger is in a different place right now,” concedes world No.21 Hunter Mahan. “He has this focus and it’s like, ‘I’m going to destroy everyone out here’. You can tell when he is in that zone. It’s intimidating.”

“Tiger has his old swagger back,” agrees O’Meara. “Plus, he has the desire to be the best player. He’s not afraid to be No.1. He’s accustomed to being in the final group at a major championship, more than any other player apart from Jack Nicklaus.”

Speaking of the 18-time major champion, this year sees the 50th anniversary of Nicklaus’ first Masters victory, a year that corresponded with the inaugural opening ceremony in which he and Palmer now take part. Back then it was a pair of grizzled old Scottish pros, Fred McLeod and Jock Hutchison, who hit the soon-to-be traditional opening tee-shots. Now it is the Golden Bear and the King, with the Black Knight, Gary Player, sure to join them soon.

Player, of course, was the first South African winner of the Masters, and one of his countrymen has a fair chance of victory over the coming days. While it may be a little late for a frustratingly out-of-sorts Ernie Els, the rainbow nation has seven other representatives in the elite field, including former champions Trevor Immelman and Charl Schwartzel, and last year’s runner-up, Louis Oosthuizen.

Certainly, Africa’s hopes of victory look a lot stronger than those inspired by Europe’s elite. As this column lamented a week ago, the last time a man from the Old World, Jose Maria Olazabal, donned golf’s most famous garment, the new century was still eight months away. And nothing we have seen from the likes of Justin Rose, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter so far this year looks like ending that depressing trend.

The smart money, then, will be on an American victory. Armed with the strong favourite and the comforting knowledge that every PGA Tour event in 2013 has been won by a home player, the world’s most powerful golfing nation appears even more superior than usual. But whatever happens, let’s hope the ladies enjoy the show.