James Lawton: Challengers lose fear but Tiger is still in the hunt

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The Independent Online

It is three years now since Tiger Woods produced the extraordinary deeds which proclaimed that not only was he the best golfer the world had ever known but that there was a serious chance that he would also prove himself the greatest sportsman of all time.

This is now a projection, some of us have to admit, to be packed a little sheepishly for the journey to Augusta National for the US Masters this week, but it will go into the case anyway. It has to, because without Tiger as so much more than another competitor, however formidable, what would we have? Another tournament of daunting driving length and awe-inspiring technical accomplishment and beautiful surroundings, of wise-cracking pros who can tell you the last 3,000 shots they have played - and the Wall Street share prices a lot quicker than the casualty figures in Iraq.

We wouldn't have the stirrings of genius or the possibility of something beyond normal imagination. We wouldn't have golf moving us as though it was an Ali fight or a Pele goal or a Bradman century. We wouldn't have the uproarious reliving of those astonishing days when the Tiger first marched to triumph at Augusta, stunning country club America with his nonchalant riding of barriers of class and race and playing shots so breathtaking in their nerve and skill.

We need Woods to come through the crisis of huge expectations - we need him to explore again the art of the impossible, and indeed suggest that he has the will and the reserves to go where not even the greatest of sportsmen have gone before. Our encouragement, surely, is that he would quite like it too.

In April 2001, the assertion that Woods was more than utterly special, that he was indeed unique in the annals of sport, could be flourished with some confidence in even the most strenuously erudite barroom conversation. Woods had just won four straight majors, and his second Masters. Even Jack Nicklaus, whose place in history was the one being so ferociously assailed, was prepared to say: "You see him play, you spend a little time in his company, and you have to believe he will be equal to anything that is put before him. He is an amazing young man."

That will no doubt hold true of Woods until at least the official onslaught of middle age, but the question in Augusta inevitably involves a certain reduction in the scale of superlatives. It is simply this: "Is the Tiger less amazing today than he was at 24?"

His decision to check into Fort Bragg, a notoriously tough US army establishment in North Carolina, and submit to the rigours of military discipline starting with 5.30am reveille suggests perhaps that he thinks it may be so. So does the weight of critical opinion, which has become heavily questioning without quite reaching the damning assessment that while Woods remains the most formidable player in the world - still No 1 in the rankings, it is maybe necessary to remind ourselves - his capacity to intimidate the life out of all rivals may be at the point of expiry.

Even those who want to believe that the genius is essentially unbroken, who ask what is better than the certainties of the highest talent carefully nourished by the most competitive of natures, have to concede a build-up of more than circumstantial evidence against their man.

Butch Harmon, the Tiger's old mentor, still badly bruised by their separation, nurses his pain and points out a troubling slew of technical imperfections. There is even a ripple suggesting that the young Aussie Adam Scott, the winner of last week's Players' Championship tournament at Sawgrass, is poised to claim some of Woods' ground. Maybe it will be so, and good luck to the brilliant young Scott, but then maybe it is also too soon to give up on the highest promise of the great prodigy from Southern California.

Last year in Augusta a most serious charge was levelled against him after the splendidly competitive, though short-hitting, Canadian Mike Weir had broken Woods' run of two consecutive Masters titles. It was that not only had Woods failed to apply any pressure on the final day, when he was beautifully poised to strike for his third straight green jacket, but that he had also made an attempt to shift responsibility. The controversy came when Woods gave the background to a fatal decision to take a driver at the 350-yard third hole, a move that started the unravelling of his bid to shoot the tournament-winning target of 65 he had set himself.

The possibility was made excitingly real when he produced two beautiful drives at the long second to make a birdie, and that perhaps provided the impetus to pick up the driver. Said Woods: "I wanted to get the ball down to the bottom of the hill, and earlier in the week I had problems holding it up in the wind. I really wanted to play an iron but I went with Steve [Williams, his caddie]."

That provoked the furore - and suggested to some that the Woods crisis had reached another stage, one of evasion of responsibility and a first seeking of the shadows. It was a hollow judgement and included an evasion of its own, the ignoring of the Tiger's final observation on the moment he lost his way. "In the end," he said, "it is the player's call. Also, I didn't make a good swing."

The portents for this week could be better. The critical view is that the erratic placement of his drives is beginning to move into his work with the three-wood and mid-iron, and much has been made of the way he sent his second shot into the crowd on the 18th on the last day of the Players' Championship. It is also true that when Nicklaus appeared to be passing on the baton back in 2001, he also said: "He has done everything right, he is in control of everything ... but conditions change, and the fact is that he hasn't been seriously challenged."

Now, a consensus says, the challengers are coming back out of the trees, emboldened by the sense of the Tiger's vulnerability. Two years ago, even a player as accomplished as Ernie Els said that the pressure of chasing Woods had been too much. It had forced him into playing wild shots.

Now, such bald fear is unlikely. Some sniff the blood of the Tiger, except, that is, the hardest men of all. The bookmakers have him at 4-1, which is five points less generous than the odds on the joint second favourites, Els and the past winner Vijay Singh. That perhaps gives some perspective to the decline of Tiger Woods. Maybe you don't have to be a romantic to believe that the age of the Tiger has not passed.