Tiger Woods is back in business at the Augusta Masters

By: samjack


Tiger walks in the door and poor Sean O’Hair dries like a nervous novice playing Hamlet in an airing cupboard. To be or not to be? O’Hair couldn’t even remember his name, let alone what he was supposed to be doing for a living.

Tiger’s first victory after his return from knee surgery was a triumph of intimidation. The greatest is back and now he is heading for Augusta, where legend has it that Woods will win more Masters titles than Arnie and Jack combined. Horsefeathers. Tiger has won four green jackets and to go past the Arnie and Jack combo, he needs another seven. It won’t happen.

Tiger has not won at Augusta since 2005, the year of the miraculous chip-in on the 16th, the year when he went on to beat Chris DiMarco in a play-off. Indeed Tiger has won a solitary green jacket in his past six attempts. For the rest of the world that is a career-defining victory. For Tiger that is a slump.

The evidence suggests that for most of the greats Augusta is a young man’s course. OK, so Nicklaus did his tear-stained revivalist act in 1986, but four of his six wins came before he reached Tiger’s current age of 33. Arnie won three of his four green jackets before 33 and Seve won both of his in his twenties.

I am not denying the evidence that plenty of older men – Ben Hogan, Ben Crenshaw, Mark O’Meara – have also won at Augusta. But I am suggesting that it is harder to win multiple titles at Augusta once you reach a certain age.

That is especially true of the modern era. Augusta is now a brutal golf course with young man’s greens. Last year’s winner, Trevor Immelman, was 28. The two men out in the final group, Immelman and Brandt Snedeker, were the winners of the US Tour’s Rookie of the Year title in 2006 and 2007. Coincidence? Maybe not.

The 2008 Rookie of the Year was Andres Romero. Although the Argentine was last seen at Augusta somewhere behind the scoreboard left of the lake by the 11th green after a wild hook, he still finished in a tie for eighth at his first Masters and may be a decent bet this year.

Yet at 27 Romero is positively ancient by today’s standards. This year’s Masters includes three teenagers, Rory McIlroy, Danny Lee and Ryo Ishikawa, who genuinely believe they have a chance of winning. That may be a stretch for Ishikawa, but McIlroy and Lee do not lack self confidence.

I cannot remember so many plot lines at Augusta. Padraig Harrington is chasing his third straight major. Greg Norman is returning to the scene of golf’s most famous death scene for the first time in seven years. The Aussies are still after their first green jacket and believe that Geoff Ogilvy may be the man.

Tiger is back after injury. Is it too late for Ernie Els to win his first Masters? Will one of the teenage kids shock the world? Can Sweden find its first winner of a men’s major? Will Sergio Garcia break through at last? Are any of the seven Englishmen ready to be the country’s first champion since Nick Faldo in 1996?

Is the Mickelodeon, aka Phil Mickelson, ready to put on a show and take over the world No 1 spot from Woods? Mickelson has won two of the past five Masters and appears to be in the form of his life. My money is on Mickelson, but I should know better because Mickelson is 38.

The arguments rage on, particularly about the golf course, which may just be the biggest plot line of all. Tiger has been sniffy about it in recent years, but then Tiger is always sniffy about set-ups that truly punish a wayward long game. Tiger is a pro and if he can influence the green jackets to play into his hands, then he will take every opportunity.

The wonderful thing about Augusta is that there are two schools of thought and they are both equally valid. Ogilvy laughs at the greens and points out that if Augusta were a new course then the designer would be locked up in an institute for the architecturally insane.

The Australian also believes that Augusta has lost some of its jazz music by toughening up the 13th and 15th holes, the two par fives on the back nine. He said: “I think they have lost that great balance of some super-hard stuff with some chances to make birdies. You had doubles on 12 and then the guy eagles 13 on top of it. Then he bogeys 14, he eagles 15 and hits it stiff on 16. It’s everything. It’s not 54 pars.”

But Harrington thinks the longer course is now almost perfect. He said: “I think the new Augusta is a tremendous improvement. When I first went in 2000, the golf course got short and the pin positions were tricky. I remember hitting sand wedge into the first and lob wedge into 18 and 9-iron into 11, and it wasn’t what I had seen on TV in the Eighties. Now it’s back to being a big, strong golf course, and the pin positions are much fairer because of it.”

Harrington’s point is that equipment advances had made the golf course so short that the only way to protect it was by putting the pins in some really funky positions by ridges. Now Augusta has returned to its former glory, the committee can control scoring and put the pins in fairer places.

Do not expect Tiger to agree. He wants a golf course he can bully. That is no longer possible at Augusta and so the question is whether Tiger’s long game is yet good enough to overcome the new, stiffer challenge.

Some American commentators are now even starting to ask if Tiger has begun to slow up. The effervescent Rick Reilly wrote the other week: “Covering him since college, I never thought it’d be anything but Tiger’s Scorched Earth Tour, steamroller over earthworm, straight to Greatest Golfer Ever. But now, for the first time, there’s just a smidgen of a hint of a droplet of a doubt.”

Tiger’s victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational did not entirely dispel those doubts. Down the stretch Woods once again confirmed that he is the most wondrous putter who has ever lived. But one horrendous pull-hook off the tee in his final round and a series of wonky irons down the stretch, made you wonder if his long game would ever again achieve the glorious invincibility of the year 2000.

History says that if Tiger can somehow barge his way into the lead by the final morning then he will go on to win. The odds say that won’t happen and a younger kid will come along to knock Tiger off his block. I say 2009 is the year of the Phillibuster.

You look at me as if there is madness in my eye and you are right. But that is Augusta for you. It makes you do daft things like predict a win for flaky Phil, aim sideways and eat pimento sandwiches. The Masters is mad, it’s glorious and we can’t wait.

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