Golf: Why organisers can't see Woods on the tees

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The Independent Online
WHEN A change of date for the BellSouth Classic was announced shortly after Tiger Woods won the event last year, the then world No 1 was quick to send his regrets to the organisers: he would not be back to defend the title. It is rare on the US Tour for the immediate past champion not to return the following year, unless there are unavoidable circumstances.

What was unavoidable for Woods was that the event now fell between the Players' Championship and the US Masters. His preparations for Augusta do not include playing the week before, unless it is in practice with Mark O'Meara at their home resort of Isleworth in Orlando, Florida. For the last two years the winner of their pre-Masters match has gone on to don the green jacket.

But, as the Geoffrey Rush character in Shakespeare in Love kept insisting, things have a funny way of working out for the best. Having boosted the prize fund by $700,000 (pounds 443,000) with the winner receiving $450,000 - exactly half the sum David Duval collected for winning the Players' but still a tidy sum - the BellSouth organisers have been rewarded by the presence of the world No 1 after all.

Duval's victory in Florida meant he overtook Woods at the top of the world rankings. Given the pouring rain for the pro-am at the TPC of Sugarloaf, a luxury estate on the north-eastern outskirts of Atlanta, staying in the Sunshine State might have been the better option. There was no choice for Greg Norman, however. The Shark will miss the tournament for the second time in the three years his course has hosted the event after being confined to bed with a fever.

While Duval is hoping just to keep his game ticking over for the Masters - where he was second last year and for which he will be the favourite along with Woods - for others this week is an important stepping stone to Augusta. Colin Montgomerie, Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam are all here, along with Jose Maria Olazabal, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Jesper Parnevik and Gabriel Hjertstedt.

Both in terms of location and quality of course, this event provides a better preparation than playing in New Orleans has in previous years, something both Montgomerie and Faldo eschewed. "If you look at the way Tiger won last year, whoever wins here will have to play good golf," Montgomerie said. "You can't afford mistakes."

Too many mistakes led the Scot to his second successive Sunday round of 79 last week. Monty was a shot off the lead early in the day before the collapse set in but perhaps this week represents a better chance to break his duck on the US tour, as Lee Westwood did in the equivalent week last year.

Despite last week's extremes of good, leading after nine holes, and bad, getting disqualified, Faldo remains optimistic that he is close to recapturing his past precision. "Technically, I know it is really good," he said. "On the range, I am hitting whatever shots I want, just the way it was before. I have to go out and do it on the course. I've got defensive and wooden."

Faldo knows how quickly it can all come back, having practised poorly before beating Norman to win the '96 Masters. But his last win was the LA Open the following year. "I was in such control then but a week later it was not there," Faldo added. "I have struggled since then but I have won tournaments in worse shape than I am. It's a ridiculously fine line."