Masters: Career-defining four days ahead for Tiger

Tiger Woods in practice ahead of today's Masters tee-off. Picture: Getty
Tiger Woods in practice ahead of today's Masters tee-off. Picture: Getty
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NOT since the 2000 Open Championship at St Andrews has a major been anticipated by the golfing world with such excitement. Then, Tiger Woods arrived at the home of golf on the back of an incredible 15-shot win in the US Open at Pebble Beach and didn’t disappoint.

An eight-stroke victory on that occasion merely confirmed the belief he was a class apart at that time.

Whether that scenario is ever going to be witnessed again in the sport could become evident here over the next four days. Without a major win since the 2008 US Open, Woods certainly isn’t the red-hot favourite he was in the Fife town 13 years ago. Indeed, even Jack Nicklaus was surprised to hear that 18 majors have come and gone without Woods winning one.

However, for the first time in a long while, Tiger is heading into a major with a head of steam building. Three PGA Tour titles have fallen to him in the opening three months of the season. Each of those wins was impressive. He led by eight shots at one point on the back nine at Torrey Pines and was never seriously challenged over the final hour at either Doral and Bay Hill.

It’s the first time in ten years that he’s won three times before the opening major of the season. He’s also back to world No 1, having reclaimed that honour for the first time since October 2010, and has every reason to feel confident about returning to winning ways here.

After emerging victorious three times here between 1997 and 2003 then again in 2005, Woods has gone seven years without adding another Green Jacket to his collection. It’s the longest drought he’s suffered in any of the majors and he’s clearly a man on a mission this week. It could be a defining four days in his career.

If he wins and finally moves off the 14-mark, it’s difficult to imagine that he won’t go on and beat Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. Fail to do so, however, and the niggling doubts will creep back in that he still can’t deliver in the events that matter most to him.

What gives Woods the confidence that this could be the week that he kick-starts his bid to topple Nicklaus as the game’s greatest player is that he is back being the demon putter he once was. Regaining full fitness after he’d hobbled to that US Open triumph just under five years ago has been important, as has becoming comfortable with the latest swing changes he’s made with Sean Foley. However, it was his putting statistics that were most impressive in those three aforementioned successes and, if that silky touch is still there on greens that send a shiver up one’s spine just from looking at them, another Tiger march to victory could be in the offing.

On the other hand, Tiger’s driver could prove his undoing on a course where strategic positioning is another prerequisite for anyone who harbours serious aspirations to win here. He has shown remarkable powers of recovery during his career but, if appearance No 19 is to produce a fifth win, then he’s probably going to perform better off the tee than he did at Bay Hill, for example, where he was almost last in driving accuracy.

In the opening three months of the season, few players were more wayward than Rory McIlroy. Indeed, it was a measure of how much his game had gone off the boil since running away with the last major, the USPGA Championship at Kiawah Island, that, in selecting his contenders for this week, Colin Montgomerie didn’t include the Northern Irishman in a list of eight.

That was before McIlroy found a timely bit of form – he closed with a 66 to finish second behind Martin Laird in Texas on Sunday – and, all of a sudden, he’s arrived here with a spring in his step. Based on the way he’s won his two majors in recent years in such impressive style, it would be foolish to write him off.

The bitter disappointment of two years ago, when he blew a four-shot lead in the final round as the wheels came off on the back nine, will only serve to make the 23-year-old all the more determined to claim a Green Jacket one day and perhaps losing the No 1 spot to Woods will, in the short-term at least, prove a blessing in disguise for McIlroy.

After a golden era that spawned three wins for Nick Faldo and one apiece for Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam, it is hard to believe that the last British victory here was in 1996. Justin Rose, the world No 3 and with two top-ten finishes in the last five years, has reason to feel quietly confident about being the man to end that drought and the same applies to Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood.

If Poulter can show the qualities he seems to bottle for the Ryder Cup, he’d certainly prove a popular winner, while Westwood’s move to Florida early in the year has allowed him to arrive here with a better short game than in the past. Whether that’s still good enough to win round this track remains to be seen but that’s another intriguing aspect of a fascinating event.

So, too, is the South African factor. Charl Schwartzel won here two years ago, Louis Oosthuizen was pipped in a play-off by Bubba Watson 12 months ago and now a total of eight Springboks, including Open champion Ernie Els, are out to make their presence felt again on one of the biggest stages in the game.

Three-time winner Phil Mickelson, as well as the likes of Brandt Snedeker, Matt Kuchar, Keegan Bradley and Dustin Johnson, are backing up Woods in the home camp, while other Europeans in with a shout could include Graeme McDowell, Sergio Garcia and Nicolas Colsaerts, the latter bidding to become the first debutant to win since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.

In an event marking the 25th anniversary of his memorable win, Sandy Lyle will have the honour of hitting the opening shot today, but if there is to be another Scottish success here this week, then it’s more likely to be delivered by either Laird or Paul Lawrie, the former, in particular, having cause to think that a lifetime dream could materialise this week after his impressive victory in San Antonio last weekend.

The 77th Masters is the first to take place with two women – Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore – among the Augusta National membership. For that reason alone, it was always going to be a special week but – call it a feeling in the water or whatever – something even more remarkable than that is about to unfold here over the next four days.