At the 61st US Masters, the storylines are thicker on the ground than the dogwood. Can Greg Norman return a conquering hero after his ultimate Masters disaster a year ago? Will Nick Faldo, the English grinder who caught the Shark in '96, win back-to-back titles for the second time. Will a footsore Jose Maria Olazabal, the 1994 champion, continue his sensational comeback from an 18-month break? But, above all, how will Tiger Woods, to many Americans the boy-man who invented golf as a mass-interest sport, fare in his first Masters as a professional?
Last Friday, at the Isleworth course in Orlando where he now lives, hardly a Mickey Mouse lay-out, Woods shot a 59 in a practice round with Mark O'Meara. He was 10 under for 10 holes and failed to birdie two of the par-fives. "Actually, it was disappointing," Woods said.
Having finished 31st, his worst result of the year, at the Players' Championship, Woods spent last week practising hard. He tightened up his swing and spent hours on the putting green honing his stroke for the treacherous Augusta greens. "I'm rolling the ball better than I have at any time," he added.
Woods has played Augusta twice as an amateur without particular success when his preparation time was then taken up with college exams. "The big difference is that I am tournament tough now," he said. But many are sceptical that on a course where there has been only one first-time winner (Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979) since the first playing, that Woods has sufficient knowledge of the particularities of the place to be ultimately successful.
"There is a learning curve to playing Augusta and a discipline to playing the course," said Faldo, who had six attempts before claiming his first Green Jacket. "Where to hit the ball, where not to hit the ball, how to hit the ball. You have to keep control. It's not impossible, but I think experience does well."
The thought of winning his third Masters is not a problem for Woods. "Is it realistic? I think so," he said. "I don't know if anyone else does. Whether I win at my third try or my 50th try, it doesn't matter. You've got to be at a level where you feel confident in your abilities physically and, more importantly, mentally.
"I have learnt the hard way on this course. You have to be patient with your iron play and the fairways are a lot narrower than you might think. In order to get to some of the pins, you have to be on certain sides of the fairways."
Woods's length off the tees is his biggest advantage and on Tuesday he drove the green at the 360-yard third. Yesterday, playing with the twice champion Ben Crenshaw, he was 40 yards short of the green at the downhill 11th and 60 yards short at the uphill 400-yard 17th. No wonder the Augusta officials are being coy about moving back the tee at the first, still rated a 400-yard hole by the scorecard, by six yards to bring the bunker on the right more into play.
The greens, however, are already hard and fast, and Woods has been given no favours by the draw, which traditionally pairs the reigning US Amateur champion with the defending champion. "There's nobody out there stronger mentally. The only way to beat Faldo round here is to hit better golf shots," Colin Montgomerie said. "He won last year's Masters by birdieing the 17th on Saturday to get to play with Norman on the last day."
Away from the high profile end of the market, there are some dangerous floaters. Ernie Els, the '94 US Open champion, and the Open champion, Tom Lehman, are two, while the last three winners on the US Tour - Phil Mickelson, Steve Elkington and Brad Faxon - do have the vital ingredient of confidence.
The rest of the European challenge is a mystery. Seve Ballesteros has turned to Woods's coach, Butch Harmon in an attempt to make his first cut of the season. Ian Woosnam made a delayed arrival from Barbados after an airline computer mistake on Monday and has had treatment on his back, although Sam Torrance's wrist has recovered. Lee Westwood is as wide-eyed as a 23-year-old should be on his Masters debut, while Warren Bladon, the British Amateur champion, has gone into debt to afford the pounds 7,000 trip.
Montgomerie's best finish in five attempts is 17th, but he says this could be the year. No, really? "I'm looking forward to competing for the first time," Europe's No 1 said. "I have not coped well so far. I've hit half-decent shots which I hoped to get away with and didn't. You can't do that here. I have never putted better on these greens in practice."
Faxon, a specialist on the greens, helped Montgomerie on Tuesday, and others regularly asked the Rhode Islander for advice. But he was surprised when Woods came to him. What was the problem? "I don't seem to hole putts until the back nine on Sundays," Woods said to Faxon's incredulity. If he is in contention on the back nine this Sunday we are going to have some fun.Reuse content