Golf: Game's elite pay tribute to a great talent

Robert Green hears how a Tiger with the heart of a lion tamed the Augusta course and everyone else besides
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The Independent Online
They say it isn't over until the fat lady sings. When the big man speaks, though, it's a different matter.

"There's no chance that Tiger Woods is just going to lose this tournament," were the words of wisdom uttered by Colin Montgomerie at the Masters on Saturday night. "No way," he added, as if emphasis were needed.

And who could argue? With a nine-shot lead and just 18 holes to play, the last round at Augusta was set up to be not a competition but a procession. The only question was whether Tiger would win by a street, a country mile or the length of the M1. Even Tony Blair isn't that far ahead. This week, Woods has set records faster than the Spice Girls make them.

Tom Kite, however, would argue with Montgomerie. This year's American Ryder Cup captain pointed out semantically: "I don't know of any of the players, especially those players on the leaderboard, who are willing to go ahead and give him the Green Jacket right now. I mean, last year we gave this tournament away on Saturday night, and unfortunately for Greg, that turned out not be the case."

So just when Greg Norman thought that talk of his spectacular demise at Augusta 12 months ago was finished, when he shot 78 to Nick Faldo's 67 and turned a six-shot lead into a five-shot deficit, up pops the topic again. And Monty made it worse.

"This is very different," he said. "Faldo's not lying second, for a start. And Greg Norman's not Tiger Woods." He might have added that nine is more than six, but that probably wouldn't have rescued his chances of being given a lift in Greg's jet any time soon. The man who did lie second, Costantino Rocca, felt he might win "if I only play nine holes - and under par, too".

Having played with Woods in the third round, Montgomerie witnessed the phenomenon at first hand. "I appreciated he hit the ball long and straight and I appreciated his iron shots were very accurate. I did not appreciate how well he putted." And on Saturday, Woods used 30 putts, an enormous number in a seven-under-par round of 65. He hit 17 of the 18 greens in regulation.

"He is a boy amongst men, and he is showing men how to play," was Tom Watson's verdict on the 21-year-old who has taken precocity to an almost preposterous level.

"He has proven he is a winner and he has the heart of a lion. He has what it takes to dominate a field. He may be the type of player who comes along once in a millennium."

The better the player, the more they seem inclined to acknowledge Tiger's talents. Jack Nicklaus, commenting on his breathtaking power, said: "He reduced this golf course to nothing." The man who has won a record six Masters continued: "People say the same things about him that they used to say about me. It's a shame Bobby Jones [the founder of the Masters] isn't here. He could have saved the superlatives he used for me in 1965 for this young man."

That year, Nicklaus established a record total of 271, and Jones memorably said: "Jack plays a game with which I am not familiar." We are all now familiar with the way Tiger plays, but being able to see it does not make it any less incredible.

When Nicklaus said last year that Woods might end up winning more Masters than the combined 10 that he and Arnold Palmer have, most people took it as an exaggerated compliment. Maybe, Jack was just being prescient.

Nicklaus's career record of 20 major championships includes two US Amateurs. Tiger won three of those. Let's say he has just won his fourth major.