Woods is still the man to watch

NO MATTER what, you can never take your eyes off him. Especially at Augusta National. Whether he is shooting 74, as he did on Thursday/Friday or 66, in his own version of Friday Night, Saturday Morning, Tiger Woods is still "the man", no matter who happens to be leading the tournament.

More than halfway through this 69th Masters, Woods wasn’t leading, but that wouldn’t deter host broadcaster CBS from showcasing the world’s best golfer, even if the rankings do temporarily identify Vijay Singh as the current No.1. While it is easy to blame CBS for many things - that nauseatingly mawkish theme music and an overly reverential Uriah Heep-like tone to the coverage in general, to name but two - keeping a close eye on all things Tiger is a policy few will argue with.

There is, after all, always something going on. Take that 74 Woods compiled on days one and two. Such a pedestrian number did, of course, give the many Tiger-bashers contained in the media ample opportunity to throw more gleeful verbal and literary darts in his direction. But the generally lazy reporting of his round, the swings he made and the shots he hit, said more about the astonishing level of technical ignorance prevalent in the golfing press than it did Woods himself. Sadly, the vast majority of scribes are unable to describe accurately what causes the common slice, never mind comment coherently on the evolving method of a man who has picked up eight majors before the age of 30.

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So, while various reporters were highlighting "fundamental flaws" in the Woods swing - then significantly failing to identify said flaws - or calling his ball-striking "appalling", a closer analysis of his performance over the opening 18 holes revealed neither of the sort. Indeed, with a couple of exceptions - notably the wild drives off the second and eighth tees - Woods unfurled a series of beautifully constructed shots over the course of his ultimately disappointing round. And, more importantly, received little or no reward for his efforts.

For example: After smacking an impeccable long iron on to the back half of the distant 13th green, Woods memorably putted into Rae’s Creek. Now, while this highlights Augusta National’s nonsensically fast greens more than any fatal flaw in the Woods putting stroke, the bottom line is that a likely birdie four was transformed into a bogey six.

Six holes later, after a monumental drive to within 100 yards of the first green (he started at the tenth), an equally impressive wedge shot was homing in on the flag. As it turned out, this was a shot that was just too good. Within a second of hitting the stick on the fly, Woods’ ball was nestling in a poor lie in the front bunker. Three shots later he had himself a bogey five - another two strokes gone.

Less than an hour after that setback, Woods was on the tee at the short sixth. Again, his beautifully struck iron flew straight at the hole, pitching, in fact, less than a yard from the cup. Unfortunately for him, the ball was also armed with a hint of backspin, enough to send the ball as much as 30 yards back down the severe slope fronting the rather silly green. Three putts later he had racked up another bogey that, no doubt, had him thinking he had "wasted" yet another brace of shots.

Let’s say that none of the above had occurred - hardly a stretch - and suddenly Woods has himself an opening 68, a score that would surely have provoked all kinds of tributes from the same journalists so keen to write him off at the end of a round in which he "enjoyed" less than his fair share of the luck that all golfers need at times. Perhaps. But what is not in doubt is that none of those six shots were lost because of any changes to Tiger’s full swing; poor fortune and a less than perfect touch around and on the greens were the root causes.

All of which is not to say that Woods was mistake-free; far from it, as his five bogeys indicated. Indeed, his "drop-kick" drive off the second tee was a further indication that his much-publicised swing changes have not yet reached the un-thinking stage he needs to attain to play at his very best. As of this moment, he is at the point where his bad shots are so bad they tend to lead to double bogeys or worse.

The drive at the eightth was one such shot, finishing as it did directly behind a tree to the right of the fairway. And the second shot that luckily ricocheted back into play? So small were the ball’s chances of making it through the undergrowth, Woods’ desperate attempt can only be put down to understandable frustration at how the day was going. He was lucky to make six.

The Woods mood will have been helped by the fact that his 66 - the lowest of the tournament so far - took him past Singh and Phil Mickelson. As is well known, Tiger doesn’t harbour much in the way of good tidings towards either man, so he will not have been unhappy to see his two "chums" squaring up to each other after Friday’s brief play. Now that Vijay has accused Phil of scarring the greens with his overlong spikes, Tiger may have an unlikely ally in the "anti-Singh" camp.

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On the subject of bad feeling, Hank Haney, the man behind the "new" Woods swing, has been popping off this week. Speaking in the latest edition of America’s Golf World magazine, Haney refers to fellow coach Jim McLean - who has been openly critical of the changes Woods has made over the past year - as "the biggest arsehole I have ever met".

Now, while using the "amateur" word (what else could it be?) to describe McLean may not represent the biggest insult in the world, it is another indication that feelings are currently running high among the game’s elite. All of which can only be encouraging for a Masters tournament that has always fed on rivalries. As the young Nicklaus and Palmer - who won ten green jackets between them - showed, a bit of an edge to proceedings is no bad thing.

Speaking of which, Woods went some way to quietening his critics with some improved scoring in the second round. By the time he made his seventh birdie of the day at the 17th - his only dropped shot came at the 14th - he was four under par for the tournament and in third place by himself.

Into the third round, he continued in similar vein. After a routine par at the opening hole, Woods’ drive down the second hole travelled 375 yards; he had but a 6-iron to the green and made an easy birdie. Another huge tee-shot at the short par-4 third left only a chip to the putting surface and a second dip under par duly ensued. Three more birdies ensued, then another birdie at the par-4 seventh. By then it was official: Tiger was on a charge.

You can be sure that the other contenders heard him coming, too. No predator strikes fear into the hearts of fellow competitors like Tiger.

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