James Lawton: Woods, the Hannibal Lecter of golf, out to devour opposition

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The Independent Online

The Tiger had rarely looked in such control of all his emotions on the eve of a major. He talked fondly of how his late father, Earl, taught him to compete from the moment he could toddle. He made it all sound like Sesame Street with just a touch of steel. So why did the image of Hannibal Lecter, preparing the fava beans and selecting a choice Chianti, spring so suddenly to mind?

It was because of the look that flooded his most open of faces when he explained why he is so apparently comfortable in what might be described as sport's ultimate zone of extreme expectation.

"I just love winning," he declared. There was pleasure and – let's be quite sure about this – more than a touch of lust on his face.

The lust to win, that is. The lust to gorge on the growing sense that men as talented as Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson have become caught in a futility that has the golf cognoscenti convinced that he is about to win his fifth Green Jacket in the 11 extraordinary years that have followed his record-shattering first win here.

Yes, he said, he would like to remove something he considers the faintest blemish on his place in history; he wants to hold all four majors in the same calendar year, not for himself, because as far as he is concerned he became a Grand Slam winner in the spring of 2001 when he added the Masters to the US Open, the Open and the USPGA in 2000. "It would be nice to do it," declared, "because then I could move on."

And to which part of the golfing stratosphere would that be? "No one can guarantee winning," he said, "but you can be very comfortable with what you are doing. I am right now. I'm asked if all the expectation on me has any real impact on me but it actually doesn't. I don't play for anything or anyone but myself and my family. That's it. That's what my father always said to me – and that's what I've always done."

There is a serenity about him now which is quite extraordinary. When he wept for the old jungle fighter after winning the Open at Hoylake in 2006 you wondered if the targets that had been set, and which had so threatened to dwarf the mark of his only serious rival as the greatest golfer of all time, might dwindle. Yet the legacy of Earl Woods appears not so much intact as increasingly rampant.

"Winning is not a burden," says the Tiger, "it is why I've devoted so much of my life to the game. Winning is the way I've always wanted to go since as long as I can remember. It's funny how people paint this picture of my dad putting pressure on me, demanding so much. The truth is that it wasn't like that at all. It was me asking my dad to make me a tougher golfer. It was second nature to him and I wanted to be like that.

"So he just did it. He put me through the same stuff that he had to go through in Special Services, all the pyschology part of it. [You] may say that it was hard but you know it was fun to me. Yes, there were frustrations at first because I didn't know how to deal with it, but I just had to figure it out. He used to pull all the little tricks.

"It got to a point where it was amusing and we would laugh about it. He would try it and it didn't work and I would hit better and better shots. It was just one of those things where my dad helped me to grow up, and on the way we had so many great times. We had so many great contests and rounds, putting contests, short-game contests, you name it.

"We were always competing against one another in everything – and really it was everything. When we played cards we hated to lose."

Few embrace the concept with total abandon, it is pointed out, and did the Tiger reflect on how many golf careers he may have cut short by announcing so wide a gulf between their hopes and his insatiable needs? "I don't really go into that," he says. "I know the last time I was intimidated was in the world junior championships when some 12-year-old kid stood on the tee next to me and drove the ball 300 yards. I don't remember his name – but I remember the drive.

"Winning and losing is often about what kind of sacrifices you are prepared to make, how badly you want it. Most guys believe they have to make a decision, whether they want to do it, work that hard and endure the lifestyle of being away from home so much and all of the things you have to do in order to succeed at this sport.

"Basically, are you prepared to pay the price?"

There have been times when the Tiger has seemed ready to mortgage his soul. His rages on the course, his sometimes relentless use of profane language, have come to symbolise a sporting life spent on the edge of stunning success and dismaying failure.

"What some people forget is how many things have to come together in order to win a championship and the more so major championships. One break where you hit a tree and it goes out of play and doesn't come back in or it happens to catch the right slope or catches the right gust of wind; all of these little factors that come in just one time is the difference between winning and losing. When I talk about wanting to win the Grand Slam, and knowing that I can do it, [it] is hard to quantify some of this to people.

"Even someone as knowledgeable as Hank [his coach, Haney] can't always pick up on this and he has seen me play so many holes. Steve [his caddie, Williams] is the only one. You ask all the players and the caddies: they are the only ones who understand the difference between winning and losing, the fine line. That's what makes the game so great. It is finding a way."

Even though Augusta National have worked so hard to neutralise the power of the Tiger – perhaps panicked by the theory of Jack Nicklaus, voiced before the youngster had beaten a single cut here, that he could finish up with 10 Green Jackets – the sense of his separation from the rest of golf has never been more profound.

"It's true I'm very comfortable here," says Woods, "because I get to come here every spring and each time I look at the course and tell myself that I have to evolve a little bit more."

Evolve? It's a fancy term for eviscerating the ambition of every golfer who stands in his way. Even on a day of such sweet reason, the Tiger cannot conceal the cannibal ambition. Yes, he repeats it. He loves winning. It goes so well with a nice drop of Chianti.

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