Mickelson the man most likely to lead Masters hunt for Tiger

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The Independent Online

The officials, players, legends, media, caddies and fans (sorry, "patrons") were all arguing until their faces were as blue as the dyed water here yesterday. Hootie's course changes, the USGA's new balls, Mickelson's two drivers... the controversy seemed endless.

At least they could agree on one thing. If Tiger Woods plays his best here over the next four days then he is certain to pick up his fifth Masters in 10 years. That may have been obvious, but it was also deeply consoling.

Because as the sun set on fairways so green that one member declared "they will hurt the viewers' eyes" and the pines peered down on the traditional par-three curtain raiser, everything somehow seemed right in the world of golf with Woods on the prowl. With the seismic advances in technology reducing proud courses such as the old Augusta to humiliated pitch-and-putts, the game is at a crossroads right now and does not appear to know where to go.

At times like this it is comforting to think that wherever that may be - be it down the expanded, whisper it, rather "boring" narrow fairways that now characterise the National, or even down the track of the reined-back ball that the authorities are considering - Woods will remain the unarguable No 1. His talent is such that any excuses come Sunday evening, should he prevail and move within one of Jack Nicklaus's record Masters haul, would sound truly pathetic. Would they really be suggesting that Woods would not have been victorious, however long the holes? Be they 10 yards or 10,000 yards?

Sure, there may be some grumbles from the shorter-hitters, who would claim that the latest 155-yard extension gave them absolutely no chance, and there would be a degree of sympathy. But should the rains stay away, and so the conditions firm up, then the bombers' advantage would not be nearly as pronounced as all the preamble has suggested. Hootie Johnson, the Augusta chairman, was certainly at pains to make this point in his annual address yesterday. As ever the proof will be in the pudding, or, as he prays, on a course that will not be a pudding. "All we are trying to do is have a good test of golf under the best possible conditions," he said, almost pleadingly.

If the new Augusta is true to his word, and the forecasters true to theirs, then the finest will come through. There are a few caveats, however. For Woods his father's ailing health can only be a drain on his focus as must be the thought that at a moment's notice he would withdraw and head off to California. Emotionally, the 10-time major winner has never been more vulnerable and the rest of the Big Five may never have a better chance to capitalise. The ceaseless conviction of Vijay Singh and returning grace of Ernie Els will have their supporters, while there is not a more nerveless practitioner on the fast stuff than Retief Goosen. But it is undoubtedly Phil Mickelson who has emerged as the rival most likely and not just because of his 13-shot "Tiger walk" at last week's BellSouth Classic.

Yes, Mickelson has the air of a safecracker with the keys in his possession. In health so rude it could be deemed pornographic, the ever-smiling one has revealed his Masters plan. Never has a competitor set out with two drivers here, never have they needed to, but all that is about to change. Mickelson will employ one for his controlled fade, the other for the lengthy draw, as he searches for the positions on the fairways he believes will decide the fate of this 70th renewal. He may just be right and is the clear threat.

But what of the European challenge to fill a void that goes back 25 majors and six Masters? Tee to green, head to heart, Sergio Garcia appears a major winner waiting to happen. But maybe not this week, not with a putting game that imploded at the Players Championship two weeks ago. Arriving here with a misfiring putter is like arriving in Dodge City with a misfiring Colt .45.

Well what about the cool hand of Luke Donald then? Jose Maria Olazabal aside, he looks the best bet of raising hopes to the clouds ahead of September's Ryder Cup rematch. The world No 9 is confident enough, has an iron game to sigh for and finished a fast-finishing third on his first outing last year. His credentials seem impeccable (on a dry course, of course) but perhaps the words yesterday of the last Englishman to don green in Georgia should be heeded.

"It's all about playing in the heat of the battle," said Nick Faldo, the three-time champion. "You can do well in a major but you can jostle through and avoid the real pressure. To be in there leading, going home Friday and Saturday with the lead, it's a different ball game. We'll find out about Luke. On paper he's got the lot, but I honestly feel there are very few who would jump straight in without doing your time out there. Most past champions have all had seven to 10 years of paying their dues. It's like any major profession, like qualifying as a doctor."

Woods is the glittering exception, of course, having stunned all on his professional debut. But then he was, and still is, a special case. Barring personal tragedy, or a Mickelson revolution, he is surely about to restate how special.

Three key Masters factors

Earl Woods

Tiger's father isfighting cancer and, if necessary, his son would return to California to be with him. Tiger's absence would be felt by everyone. No Tiger, no proper major.

Phil Mickelson's two drivers

One is set up for a controlled fade, one for a lengthy draw. It is an unprecedented step. But it could just work.

The weather

The forecast is frighteningly bright - which would be good for the shorter hitters. If it is wet, roughly 10 are long enough to win. If it is dry, make that 30.

Augusta tee-off times

Today and tomorrow (US unless stated, all times BST)

13.00 and 15.56: R Pampling (Aus), L Glover, O Browne.

13.11 and 16.07: L Mize, B Crane, D Duval.

13.22 and 16.18: B Crenshaw, *C Ogden, T Immelman (SA).

13.33 and 16.29: N Faldo (GB), M A Jimenez (Sp), R Beem.

13.44 and 16.40: R Floyd, V Taylor, R Mediate.

13.55 and 16.51: G Player (SA), *D Dougherty, R Sabbatini (SA).

14.06 and 17.02: F Zoeller, C Howell, P McGinley (Rep Irl).

14.17. and 17.24: T Watson, *B McElhinney (Rep Irl), M Campbell (NZ).

14.28 and 17.35: I Woosnam (GB), T Clark (SA), T Lehman.

14.39 and 17.46: M Calcavecchia, D Howell (GB), T Jaidee (Thai).

14.50 and 17.57: M Weir (Can), R Goosen (SA), T Hamilton.

15.01 and 18.08: J M Olazabal (Sp), D Toms, L Donald (GB).

15.12 and 18.19: V Singh (Fiji), H Stenson (Swe), A Oberholser.

15.23 and 18.30: T Woods, *E Molinari (It), R Allenby (Aus).

15.34 and 18.41: F Couples, J Furyk, S Maruyama (Japan).

15.56 and 13.00: C Coody, T Purdy, B Jobe.

16.07 and 13.11: T Herron, N O'Hern (Aus), M Hensby (Aus).

16.18. and 13.22: J Leonard, S Ames (Can), S O'Hair.

16.29 and 13.33: B Langer (Ger), Z Johnson, B Bryant.

16.40 and 13.44: S Verplank, C Montgomerie (GB), J Ogilvie.

16.51 and 13.55: S Micheel, L Westwood (GB), B Curtis.

17.02 and 14.06: S Lyle (GB), B Mayfair, P Lonard (Aus).

17.24 and 14.17.: J Daly, C Pettersson (Swe), J Bohn.

17.35 and 14.28: M O'Meara, T Levet (Fr), D Clarke (N Irl).

17.46 and 14.39: F Funk, S Appleby (Aus), C Campbell.

17.57 and 14.50: S Cink, T Bjorn (Den), K J Choi (S Kor).

18.08 and 15.01: C DiMarco, S Garcia (Sp), G Ogilvy (Aus).

18.19 and 15.12: C Stadler, *K Marsh, P Harrington (Rep Irl).

18.30 and 15.23: P Mickelson, S Katayama (Japan), E Els (SA).

18.41 and 15.34: D Love, A Cabrera (Arg), A Scott (Aus).

* denotes amateur

Weather

TODAY

Dry and sunny. With light southerly winds, a maximum of 25C is expected, which is above the April monthly average for Augusta of 18C.

TOMORROW

Also dry and sunny, though slightly cooler than day one, and with more cloud cover.

SATURDAY AND SUNDAY

Temperatures will increase, up to 28C. Clouds and some rain are expected for the final round.

TV times

TODAY BBC2: 21.00-22.30

TOMORROW BBC2: 21.00-22.30

SATURDAY BBC2: 20.25-00.00

SUNDAY BBC2: 19.35-00.00

Betting

William Hill: 100-30 Woods; 13-2 Mickelson; 12-1 Goosen, Els; 14-1 Singh; 25-1 Furyk, Donald; 33-1 Olazabal, Garcia.

Betting Exchange: 100-30 Woods; 13-2 Mickelson; 12-1 Goosen, Els; 14-1 Singh; 21-1 Donald; 33-1 Olazabal, Garcia; 50-1 Harrington.

Ladbrokes: 3-1 Woods; 6-1 Mickelson; 8-1 Els; 12-1 Goosen; 14-1 Singh; 25-1 Olazabal, Donald, Garcia. 33-1 Scott, Furyk; 40-1 Toms, Dimarco.

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