Fab Four draw inspiration from all their yesterdays

If the weather gods have indeed laid plans to thrust their mischievous malevolence on the sunbathed magnificence that is Augusta National with a well-timed series of storms today, they had better make sure to give it their best thunderbolt. Because it will take something of Biblical proportions to in any way dampen the excitement that has been building here.

For not since "The Great Triumvirate" of Braid, Taylor and Vardon introduced the concept of intense personal rivalry to the gentleman's game in Edwardian times, not since Jack, Arnie and Gary locked Excaliburs in their golfing Camelot in the 1960s, has there been the prospect of such glorious competition. And there is not just three to frame a new golden era, but four. Tiger, Vijay, Ernie and Phil... the names roll off the tongue, making the mouth water as they pass by the lips.

True, "The Fab Four" have all been around for a while but never have their talents seemed so aligned. The giddying thought of them slugging it out down a stretch that will be sympathetically set-up to draw a birdie-filled finale is at the forefront of every mind here, except, perhaps, in that of Retief Goosen. It will not happen as simply as that, of course; it never does. But it is still hard to envisage a scenario when at least two of Woods, Els, Mickelson or Singh will not be involved come Sunday.

Television, the sponsors, the galleries, and, yes, perhaps, even the game of golf itself, will be praying that Tiger is at the head of this conflict. There is a palpable sense that the player who is world No 1 in everything but statistics is on the verge of going on another major spree. Undoubtedly, the swing changes that made his challenge so feeble last year will soon take their most destructive effect on the opposition, but even when they do, it will not be quite so easy to reach a different plane. Singh, Els and Mickelson are now far too sure of their own greatness to be left standing still.

Of the three, Singh is the burning fireball of resentment, understandably peeved that his status is dismissed so readily. Indeed, at The Players Championship two weeks ago, the Fijian's game looked more finely tuned than any of his three rivals' and if his putter does decide to point ball at hole, the 9-1 on offer might appear scandalously generous.

Els, too, might be surprised to find his name further than second down the bookmakers' lists, even though he is the only one of the élite not to have a Green Jacket. The South African's record here is anything if not impressive, however, as his two second places in the last five years testify. If anyone deserves it, the "Big Easy" does, although as Tiger commented so tellingly here on Tuesday: "This place doesn't owe anybody anything. You gotta earn what you get around here."

Mickelson would make a rare nod of agreement towards Woods on this one. As the defending champion, he should feel well in credit in Georgia, but the manner in which he wrote off hosting Tuesday night's Champions' Dinner as "a bit of fun, nothing else - the real thing starts on Thursday", shows that he is ready to do it the hard way again as he tries to become only the fourth person in history to go back-to-back at Augusta. Monday's win at the BellSouth Classic will do his chances no harm, nor, of course, will his silver-fingered touch on the infamous greens this week.

Tiger spoke of the "greens never being so fast at the start of the week" and hinted at the fun that could be in store. Remember the carnage that the lightning surfaces wreaked at last year's US Open and add a few more bodybags to the scene. "Shinnecock Hills with bikini wax," as Jesper Parnevik remarked.

Saying that, there are still many who believe that the driver will be the most influential weapon. A notable whisper of discontent came from Jose Maria Olazabal, a self-confessed Augustaholic who collected his two majors here in 1994 and 1999. "I've always said that the longer you make a course, the more you favour the long hitters," he said. "But no matter what they do to the course, I'll still get excited about the week. When I set foot here I feel at peace with myself."

What the goosebumped young Brits would give for such tranquillity - and the Spaniard, who signalled his own return to form with the play-off defeat to Mickelson at the start of the week, feels this may be their biggest hurdle. "Seve [Ballesteros] told me not to worry if you don't play well at first because Augusta isn't like any other course," he said. "Of course, you don't think like that when you're there at first, but as years go you realise it."

So who to root for then, if not Luke Donald, Paul Casey or Ian Poulter? "Padraig Harrington had his first US Tour win a few weeks ago, Lee Westwood's playing well again and if Darren Clarke has a good week on the greens he can be right in there," said Olazabal. "The same goes for Sergio [Garcia]. He's clearly long enough and he does have a great short game when he's on."

Alas, even if "on", Europe's Ryder Cup heroes may not be "on" enough. Teamwork is one thing, individual brilliance another. Mickelson by a whisker. A Tiger's whisker.

AUGUSTA TORTURE CHAMBER: HOW AMEN CORNER GOT ITS NAME

Ever since the first Masters was held at the Augusta National in 1934 it was obvious that the critical action would invariably take place in south-east corner of the course, the farthest point from the clubhouse.

John Rae had been a plantation owner in the late 18th century, whose trading place was at a creek's confluence of the Savannah River, the most remote fortress up the river from Fort Augusta. It was later to be known as Rae's Creek, running in front of the 12th green, having a tributary evident at the 13th tee, flowing from the back of the 11th green.

In 1958, an incident on the back of par-three 12th, where Arnold Palmer was allowed to take a drop, went a long way to winning the young American his first major and the great Sports Illustrated writer, Herbert Warren Wind, was searching for a saying that would describe that infamous corner.

'I was looking for some colourful tag like the Four Horsemen, the Manassa Mauler, the House that Ruth Built, the Georgia Peach, and so on,' Wind said. He came up with 'Amen Corner', borrowing the expression from the title of an obscure jazz record, "Shouting At Amen Corner".

Originally, Wind meant it simply to cover the second half of the 11th hole, the 12th and the first half of 13th, but soon it came to represent all of those three holes about which Tiger Woods said: "If you can get through Amen Corner at level or better on Sunday afternoon then you are going a long way to winning The Masters."

JAMES CORRIGAN

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