History twists the Tiger's tale
Woods dons a cloak of invincibility as he hunts his fifth green jacket 10 years after his first
Strange to report for a tournament that in recent years has raised talking points more quickly than David Dimbleby on Question Time, but we seem to be bereft of burning issues at the Masters this week. There are no feminists banging at Augusta's still-bolted doors, no ex-champions chaining themselves to course-altering bulldozers and definitely no Hootie Johnson telling the world to stop poking its nose into the business of the green jackets (the old chairman has retired).
But what we have got is Tiger Woods and the 10th anniversary of his first Masters victory. Now there truly is something to get hot under the collar about. What makes the pulse hurtle past the IQ is Tiger arriving back at his happiest hunting ground having fulfilled so many of the predictions made in the euph-oria of that 12-stroke victory. Those who declared that the then 21-year-old would "win the next 20 Masters" - yes, you, Jesper Parnevik - had obviously been sniffing too many azaleas; in hindsight, three out of the next nine has been a wonderful achievement, and one even the ultra-ambitious pair embracing behind the 18th green in April 1997 would readily have accepted.
That hug between Tiger and his father, Earl, will be replayed a thousand times in America in the next few days, and should the golden child win for a fifth time on Sunday the tears will flow as freely as the tributes to his late father.
Finding someone to spoil that scenario is no easy matter, as the betting odds emphasise. Tiger has never been at shorter odds to prevail in a major, and although on one level the bookmaker offering 11-10 is being absurd, on another his caution is perfectly understandable. Woods has won the past five strokeplay tournaments featuring the world's best (the Open, US PGA and three WGC events) and has done so without being extended.
His back-nine capitulation of 43 at Bay Hill will have been a ray of hope for his rivals, and another shaft of light was provided by his edgy putting display at Doral last week. But he still prevailed in Miami, and should the straight-faced implement oblige this week then it might all get eerily familiar. Perhaps not quite 1997, but an appropriately timed reminder all the same.
As ever, what may make it interesting is the weather. As Woods commented last week, in 2006 the field never got to see the new, "improved" Augusta at its toughest. "Last year, going in - with all of the changes and all the lengthening, the new second cut and the trees - we were all thinking that if you shoot even par you'll probably win pretty easily," said Woods. "But obviously the rains changed everything. We're all interested to see if we have a dry year what the score might be."
As the forecast indeed points to a marked lack of precipitation - as they like to say over there - an attritional, US Open-style event is depressingly possible. The fabled grinder Retief Goosen might come into it then, but as the South African is woefully out of sorts, Tiger's main challenge will most likely come from a few old favourites.
Vijay Singh has already won twice this year, while Phil Mickelson has a first and second and is the defending champion. Along with his coach, Dave Pelz, Mickelson made his traditional reconnaissance visit and report-edly played 27 holes, shooting 65 and then 31 for the front nine. Those sort of numbers would result in his third Masters in four years - a run to which even Tiger would have to accede.
Europe, of course, would just be content with netting one major in eight years, the drought now stretching back 29 tournaments to 1999. Paul Casey is the obvious chance, although many are screaming Henrik Stenson. In truth, though, Colin Montgomerie probably best summed up his continent's chances when asked about his own hopes at Augusta. "Why do you want to talk to me about the Masters?" said Montgomerie, with trademark mischief. "Have a look at my record there. My best finish is a tie for eighth. So I'll tell you what my record is at the Masters - it's crap. Try elsewhere."
OK Monty, we shall. How about Tiger? Win and the 31-year-old closes to within five of Jack Nicklaus in the all-time major list and within one of the Masters list. Nicklaus collected his first five green jackets in 14 professional attempts. Woods would be doing it in 11. Another Tiger milestone on the fairways already resembling a motorway network because of them.
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