Sadness stalks the golden lair of Tiger

A tournament made for Woods and a field who appear to tremble at the sight of his name
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All the talk at the Masters this week is just bound to centre around change - "Have they ruined Augusta?" and all that - although come Sunday evening it may well be the same old story. "Tiger Woods wins the Masters" is a headline we've read once or twice before.

Some four times in the past nine years, in fact, and only a fool would bet heavily against the 30-year-old joining Jack Nicklaus as the only golfers to have prevailed five times or more at Augusta. And so, at last, the major record books would confirm to the golfing world what it already knows: that these two really are in a kingdom of their very own.

Tiger certainly looks in his own kingdom, in his own habitat, with his own prey at his mercy, and it says something about his standing in Georgia that the biggest threat to him successfully defending the title he won so thrillingly last year is perceived to be the personal tragedy unfolding back in California. Earl Woods's long fight with cancer is intensifying, and Tiger is ready to withdraw if and when is necessary.

It may be insensitive in the extreme to hypothesise about what implications this would have to a relatively meaningless golf tournament, before considering what it would mean to a doting son, but with Tiger and the Masters it is mighty difficult not to. Without him this Masters would seem even more meaningless. It would almost be worth putting an asterisk next to the new champion's name.

There is always the chance, of course, that Woods will indeed be mercifully allowed to play his lead role, and that one of the supporting cast will swagger his way into the spotlight. A personal fancy is for Ernie Els to don a green jacket, so overdue there should be out-of-date mothballs in every pocket. Fans of Phil Mickelson will also talk up his chances after he lifted the last major, the US PGA Championship, while if Vijay Singh's putting is as good as he thinks it is then 2000 may just be reprised.

But all of them have their weaknesses, not least that they all seem to crumble whenever the name T Woods hits the leaderboard. The 30-year-old has won three of the seven tournaments he has entered this year - and he pulled out of one of them with influenza - and the truly scary fact is that he hasn't even played that well. Couple that intimidation factor with the course lengthening that will play directly into his hands of steel, and suddenly Woods looks a size 14 of a shoo-in.

If any further evidence is necessary, then consider that he arrived at the first major last year as the world No 2, with his game in flux, and still managed to overcome a dreadful start to see off a truly inspired Chris DiMarco (will Augusta ever see his short-hitting like again?) and you may approximate the scale of the challenge awaiting any would-be conqueror.

In his more off-guard moments Woods has confessed that as few as six of the 92-strong field could be long enough and good enough to deny him at Augusta, and should it rain as forecast, and thus accentuate the extra 155 yards, then that number would only get smaller. "Yeah, the changes have eliminated the chances of a number of guys," Woods said last week, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.

Here it must be mentioned that probably none on Woods's danger list hail from Britain, or even Europe. Sergio Garcia remains the man most likely to end the seven-year, 25-major itch that bristles all the way back to Paul Lawrie at Carnoustie in 1999, as the Spaniard has the boom, bluster and brilliance needed to find the National's winning enclosure. But does he have the putting game and does he have the stamina? His average score on a Sunday this season is a depressing 75, and portrays the brittle mind of a competitor who is not quite there yet. But his doubters seem to forget he is only 26 and, emotionally at least, is quite young for it.

So who else is there? In the European Ryder Cup captain's eyes, just like Tiger's, it appears there is nobody. Ian Woosnam is planning on holding a team-building barbecue for his likely K Club men this week, but he may just be keeping the subject of victory to Dublin in September, not Augusta in April.

"Luke Donald is probably our best chance of winning," said the 1991 victor last week. "But without taking anything away from him, the US Open or The Open is probably his best shout. Augusta favours the big hitters, and Luke isn't one of those. Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke or Lee Westwood are, though, and would always have a squeak there. It's just if they can cope with the pressure."

That is an "if" as big as Amen Corner, and Woosnam may be making a few entreaties to the higher beings himself by the time he gets around to the 11th, 12th and 13th. With his bad back, with his faltering game, Woosnam is on Ryder Cup reconnaissance solely, but when you hear someone of the talent, form and all-round green mastery of Jose Maria Olazabal resigned to number-filling then you just know Augusta is moving in the wrong direction.

"To be honest, with all the changes they've made it just isn't my alley any more," said the two-time champion. Everybody knows whose alley it is, of course. And they are all ready for yet another Woods strike.

THE BEAR ESSENTIALS: ANATOMY OF AN ANNIVERSARY WINNER

Brain

Jack Nicklaus won his first Masters at the age of 23, his sixth and last 20 years ago at 46. "What he'd lost in body, he more than made up for in the mind," said Jackie Jnr, his son and caddie in 1986. His shot-selection was central to his final-round 65. "Every call was perfect," said his playing partner, Sandy Lyle.

Putter

Nicklaus swapped his much-trusted heel-shafted putter for a radically oversized Macgregor model. The move paid dividends, both on and off the course. "I putted like God and we sold 350,000 of them after the Masters," he said.

Composure

Says Nicklaus: "A friend used to needle me when the pressure was on, saying, 'Is the Globus Hystericus getting you, Jack?' We all have one of those, you know, get apprehensive under pressure. If you can cope with it, it's very much to your advantage." Nicklaus did. Ballesteros, who was six shots clear of him at the turn, palpably didn't.

Heart

With his 24-year-old son, Jackie Jnr, as his caddie, this was very much a family affair. Jack's mother, Helen, declared this would be her last Masters. She was 86 years old and had just undergone a heart bypass.

Swing

Nicklaus had a unique swing. Although he would have to crouch more and more as he grew older in order to uncoil a powerful enough spring, his ball-striking remained unparalleled. A tip from fellow pro Chi Chi Rodriguez just before the tournament rejuvenated his short game.

Physique

Once a podgy teen, he was no perfect specimen but he made the most of what he had, limiting his appearances in "minor" tournaments to fewer than 10. When many of his contemporaries were feeling the effects of a long career, he was still relatively fresh.

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