Butch Harmon believes it would be a storyline second only in the event’s folklore to Jack Nicklaus claiming a sixth Green Jacket at the age of 46 but he reckons Tiger Woods needs to brush up his driving to have any chance of justifying him having been installed as the bookmakers’ favourite to win next week’s Masters.
Harmon, who will be commentating on the event for Sky Sports, says it could be the “most exciting Masters of all time” due to so many of the leading contenders having either won or shown encouraging form heading into the opening major this season, including four-time Augusta National winner Woods.
The 42-year-old only returned to action in December following a lengthy lay-off after he underwent a spinal fusion surgery last April, yet was in with a chance of winning in his final two warm-up events for a first Masters appearance since 2015.
“We’ve all been surprised at how well he’s played, regarding the scores he’s shot,” said Harmon, who was Woods’ coach for a decade, helping him win eight of his 14 majors. “He’s had his back fused, so he can’t move through the ball the way he used to – but he’s still Tiger Woods.
“He putts good and he hits his wedge shots good. But I think Augusta is going to be a different animal. He’s going to have to drive the ball better than he’s been driving it. In past tournaments, we’ve seen him go to his driving iron off the tee, but you can’t do that at Augusta. You’re going to have to drive it and, if he can get that sorted out, he could definitely be a factor.
“But, in all honesty, I’m pleasantly surprised at how well he’s played and I think the whole golf world is surprised, too. It’s been phenomenal for the game because we’re really happy to have him back. And we all hope that he goes to Augusta and plays well because it just makes it that much more exciting.”
Not only has Woods played some encouraging golf over the past few weeks but he’s done so with a smile on his face. “You are seeing a more mature Tiger Woods,” said Harmon of that welcome change. “He’s been humbled with what’s happened to him in his life, brought on by himself, and I find him to be very similar to what he was ten to 15 years ago. I was around him at the Farmers Tournament in San Diego and he was fun. He seemed to be engaging more with the fans, which is good.”
Woods landed his first Green Jacket in 1997 before repeating that success in 2001, 2002 and 2005. In 20 appearances, he has missed the cut only once – he was still an amateur at the time – and recorded 13 top-ten finishes. It is down to that impressive record more than anything else that he will tee off on Thursday as the title favourite.
Is that realistic? “No,” insisted Harmon, “because I don’t really think we have seen how he can handle the big event. We know he knows the course at Augusta better than anyone but, as I’ve said already, it is a different animal there.
“You are also looking at a guy that’s 42 years old and who has had four back surgeries and four knee surgeries. So you’re looking at a person who is totally different than he was in the past when he was in his heyday. That’s the physical part of it.
“Mentally, he is still Tiger Woods. He is still one of the strongest guts mentally that’s ever played, and he still has that desire to win. For me, he’s the greatest player that’s ever lived, for the things he did. Nicklaus is the greatest champion, but when he was playing his best, I think Tiger was the best golfer I’ve ever seen. Will he play like that again? Probably not. But I think he’s very competitive, and that’s all we can ask for.
“For me, the most phenomenal Masters win was Jack in ’86 and, if he (Woods) were to win, I would put it right up there with it. I think it would be unbelievable for the game of golf if he were to be able to do it. And the one thing I would say about TW: you can never say never with TW. He can surprise you. He is an amazing golfer, even with what he has been through. Now do I think he is going to win? No, I don’t. But would I like to see him win? You are damn right I would.”
In the 70th anniversary of his father, Claude, winning the event, Harmon is tipping Rory McIlroy to secure the success that would make him only the sixth player to claim a career Grand Slam.
“I think we are going to see a fantastic back nine on Sunday as we have the cream of the crop playing at the top of their game at a spectacular venue and my money would be on Rory this year,” he declared, having watched the four-time major champion make a timely return to winning ways in the Arnold Palmer Invitational a fortnight ago.
“He is playing much better, he is driving the ball wonderfully and he seems to have got his putting straightened out. It doesn’t mean he is going to win, but I would make him the favourite in my book.”
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