Golf: Tiger has no fear of the Augusta jungle

The US Masters: Woods confident of a repeat Green Jacket performance as leading challenger Els lays plans for a fairway ambush
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IF TIGER WOODS needed one final reminder of what it means to win the US Masters, he received it the other evening. It means never having to make a dinner reservation on the Tuesday of Masters week. Woods was the guest of honour at the Champions' Dinner and tucked into the cheeseburgers and milk shakes he had ordered specially.

But if the 22-year-old's favourite food is to appear on the menu every year, Woods knows he will have to keep winning the tournament. That,apparently, will not be as difficult as his record-breaking 12-stroke victory a year ago.

"I think this year will be much easier because I know how to win here," Woods said. "Last year I didn't know what it took because I'd never won here. I think, as the years go on, it will be even easier because I will know the nuances of the course more."

How long those nuances remain the same remains to be seen. The Augusta National timelords were content that the average score of the top 10 last year - four under - was nothing abnormal. No Tiger-proofing has gone on. No rough, no more bunkers or ponds.

"We thank everyone for their thoughts, but I think it is fair to say that we didn't get excited," Jackson Stephens, the club's chairman, said.

Suggestions that 12 strokes was the casualty rate on the tournament committee when Woods reached 18 under and broke a record set by Jack Nicklaus in 1965 are unfounded. "I've never seen as much excitement as we had in the clubhouse last year," Stephens said. "When he made the putt on 18, the clubhouse exploded."

Woods, however, has won only once this year, has not broken par in his last six rounds and has come nowhere close to emulating the 59 he had in practice at his Orlando home last year. But there are four weeks of the year which matter to Woods, as this exchange at his pre-tournament press conference revealed.

Question: "If God came down and said, Tiger, you can only win one major this year, which one would it be?" Woods: "One major? If he said it himself? The way I am, I would argue with him why can't I have all four?"

But while Woods, who left the dinner with Fuzzy Zoeller, whose comments about what would be served up caused a racial storm last year, may win more Masters titles, he already has the only Green Jacket he will ever get.

Others are still lacking such a garment in their wardrobe and first in line at the outfitters is Ernie Els.

"I don't think it is Tiger Woods against the field," Els said. "I think it's Tiger against the Augusta National and it is for the rest of the field to do the same."

For the 63rd playing of an event launched by the greatest amateur, Bobby Jones, the questions revolve around not whether Woods can win again - he clearly can - but his performance last year really has, in the words of Tom Watson, acted as "a wake- up call for the rest of the tour".

It was possibly no co-incidence that Els, at 28 the elder statesman in a group of twentysomethings who include Woods, the Open champion, Justin Leonard, and England's Lee Westwood, went on to win the first major of the so-called new era when he claimed a second US Open. The South African has been in fine form already this year and is pressing Woods for the No 1 spot in the world rankings.

"I've got to the stage in my career when I have learned enough," he said. "I've got to take that forward now." His best finish at Augusta was eighth in 1994 and he has changed his attitude to the place since the events of a year ago.

"In the past I have played a little bit conservatively," he said. "A guy like Tiger can play this course aggressively all the time because he is hitting short irons into most greens. We have to look to go for the pins more."

But the statistic which still takes some believing is that Woods, quite apart from not three-putting, never missed a putt inside 10 feet. "I still can't believe that," said Colin Montgomerie, who was paired with Woods on the third day last year.

Beforehand, Monty, as is his wont, wondered whether experience or talent would be more useful. Woods 65, Montgomerie 74, was his answer. "Obviously, I found out talent beats experience," he admitted. If it is possible, the big Scot has been overshadowed by Westwood's emergence, at 24, as contender rather than pretender.

"His victory in New Orleans was tremendous," said Montgomerie, who has yet to win a US Tour event. "He is very, very confident in what he is doing." Which is more than can be said for Montgomerie, who has not finished better than 17th at Augusta, or Nick Faldo, who needs to prove his comments on his putting are more than wishful thinking.

The compelling storyline for the next four days is a straight Woods-Els shoot-out. Woods deflected any questions on his nearest challengers by saying "any who tees it up" is a danger. But Els said: "A rivalry will only really come if we play well in a major championship together. Maybe this will be the start of it."

Ageing foursome with an ageless will to win

Fred Couples (US)

Age 38

Schedule has been limited for the last few years due to a deteriorating back but, on his game, can still contend. Seventh Open last year and won the Bob Hope Classic earlier in the year. "At this stage of my career, playing as little as I do, winning means a lot more," says the 1992 Masters champion. Seven top-10s at Augusta since debut in '83. Distracted by personal problems last year, including the death of his father. Laid-back image masks the desire which overrides lack of practice. "I love to compete even if I don't always show it."

Nick Faldo (GB)

Age 40

The old grinder himself has been preparing in the only way he knows how: practice, practice, practice. "I have been working hard for the last four months," he says, "now we'll see if I can get anything from it." Best finish in the States this year was 18th at the Players' Championship. Has been frustrated to the point of exasperation by his putting but has returned to the old putter with which he won three of his six majors. One victory since third Masters win in '96. "I think my game is ready for a burst," he says. "We're not dead and buried, yet."

Greg Norman (Aus)

Age 43

Australian businessman who in former career as a golfer suffered countless Masters disasters, notably losing to Faldo in '96 after leading by six. Has played just five times this year, winning once at his own tournament in Sydney, but quitting the South African PGA when play went on to Monday. Shoulder injury forced him out of the Players' Championship but started practising again last Wednesday. "I'm ready to go," he says. "Once you get under the gun again, everything comes back." Could be a Shark who bites when you least expect it.

Tom Watson (US)

Age 48

Will soon be off to the Senior Tour but before he goes, Watson wants to "show those young pups like Tiger and Ernie that I still have some teeth left in me". The double Masters champion of 1977 and '81 knows what it is to be overtaken by the new power game. Watson hits a two-iron 210 yards while his 15-year-old son, Michael, hits a two-iron 240 yards. Has not won since the '96 Memorial, but was second in the Hawaiian Open and is leading the postponed AT&T Pro-am with a round to go. Putting better of late. "More like the Watson of old," he says.

Hole-by-hole guide to Augusta National

1st, 400 yards, par 4 (Tea Olive): A slight dogleg right, uphill and with the fairway bunker on the right a 257-yard carry. Trees right and left and no easy introduction to the greens - this is one of the toughest on the course. Loren Roberts five-putted it last year.

Tiger Woods record figures for 1997: 5-4-4-4 (1 over)

2nd, 555 yards, par 5 (Pink Dogwood): A downhill dogleg left. The ideal drive is to aim at the right-hand bunker with a draw. The green is reachable in two, but go too far and the chip back is fearsomely fast. Better to be in the bunkers short than long. Woods: 5-4-4-4 (3 under)

3rd, 360 yards, par 4 (Flowering Peach): Woods and John Daly might go for the green with a following wind. Most will use a three-wood or long iron for position, but then comes the tough bit, a pitch to a pear-shaped green that slopes right to left and has a thin neck on the left where pinpoint accuracy is essential. Woods: 4-5-4-4 (1 over)

4th, 205 yards, par 3 (Flowering Crab Apple): Longest par three, but the tee is moved forward when the pin is placed just over the guarding bunker. The tiered green slopes back to front and gauging the wind is as important as choosing the right club. Woods: 4-3-3-3 (1 over)

5th, 435 yards, par 4 (Magnolia): Jack Nicklaus twice holed his second shot here in 1995. Many will be happy with par, though, as the green slopes sharply back to front and it played as the fourth most difficult hole last year. Woods: 4-3-3-5 (1 under)

6th, 180 yards, par 3 (Juniper): Jose Maria Olazabal had a record seven in 1991 - and went on to lose to Ian Woosnam by one. It was the third toughest hole 12 months ago and no wonder. The green is divided into two by a huge ridge. Shots that look near perfect can roll 60 feet or more away.

Woods: 3-3-3-3 (level)

7th, 360 yards, par 4 (Pampas): A straightforward looking par four needing only a long iron off the tee to leave a pitch to an elevated green. The problem is the narrowness of the sloping green. Go long and you are in a back bunker, spin the ball too much and you finish short in the sand traps. Woods: 4-4-3-5 (level)

8th, 535 yards, par 5 (Yellow Jasmine): Another birdie opportunity for the long hitters who can get past the fairway bunker on the right. As close as possible to that is the line, but because it goes steeply uphill and turns left the majority opt for placement with their second and then a pitch.

Woods: 6-4-4-4 (2 under)

9th, 435 yards, par 4 (Carolina Cherry): A downhill drive to a wide open fairway is inviting enough and then uphill again to a green that can produce nightmares. You have to avoid coming up short, yet leave yourself a downhill putt when the flag is on the front and it's possible to roll 60 yards back down the fairway. Woods: 5-4-4-4 (1 over)

10th, 485 yards, par 4 (Camellia): The reason why it is not a par five is that the fairway goes sharply downhill, more so on the left than the right. A draw or even a hook will set up a much shorter second to a green that falls away to the left. Woods: 3-4-4-4 (1 under)

11th, 455 yards, par 4 (White Dogwood): The start of Amen Corner and the scene of Nick Faldo's two play-off wins over Scott Hoch and Ray Floyd. Also Larry Mize's chip-in to beat Greg Norman. A pond guards the left and the greens slopes towards it. Woods: 4-4-3-3 (2 under)

12th, 155 yards, par 3 (Golden Bell): The most famous par three in golf. Water in front, then a bunker, then the slender green, then two more bunkers and all manner of trouble. Tom Weiskopf had a 13 in 1980, Fred Couples miraculously clung on to the bank en route to his 1992 victory. Woods: 2-3-3-3 (1 under)

13th, 485 yards, par 5 (Azalea): First-round leader John Huston had a 10 here in the second round last year, going in Rae's Creek three times. Jeff Maggert, in contrast, had an albatross two in 1994. The hole turns almost 90 degrees left and is bordered by about 1,600 azaleas.

Woods: 4-3-5-4 (4 under)

14th, 405 yards, par 4 (Chinese Fir): The only hole with no bunkers, but to compensate the green is arguably the hardest on the entire course. The two players to have a record eight here were no mugs - course record holder Nick Price in 1993 and reigning US Open champion Steve Jones last year. Woods: 4-3-4-3 (2 under)

15th, 500 yards, par 5 (Firethorn): Twice winner Ben Crenshaw's closing 80 a year ago contained a record-equalling 11 here, three balls going into the guarding lake. Woods' power, however, leaves him only a nine- iron or wedge if he gets the right bounce off the mounds on the right. Gene Sarazen's albatross two in 1935 became known as "the shot heard round the world". Woods: 3-4-4-5 (4 under)

16th, 170 yards, par 3 (Redbud): Ryder Cup player Ken Green five-putted in an opening 87. The tee shot over water is to a green that swings from right to left. It is feasible to have your back to the hole when putting, but the hole also sees its fair share of birdies when the flag is placed in an area where the ball gathers. Woods: 3-3-3-3 (level)

17th, 400 yards, par 4 (Nandina): The drive is over Eisenhower's Pine 170 yards from the tee. The American president was a member of the club. Another huge fairway, but position is important to have the best possible angle to a green that catches many out, especially when the pressure is on. Woods: 3-4-4-4 (1 under)

18th, 405 yards, par 4 (Holly): John Huston found a novel way to eagle the hole last year, going through the trees on the right to the 10th fairway and sinking a five-iron. Ian Woosnam's huge drive over the left-hand bunkers and Sandy Lyle's up-and-down from the first of them will live long in the memory. Television gives no idea of how much of a climb the hole is. Woods: 4-4-3-4 (1 under)