So who really is the UK's best hope at Augusta?
For the first time we have the three best golfers in the world. But can one of them end a 16-year British drought at the Masters and hold off a resurgent Woods?
The United Kingdom has never before gone into a Masters boasting the top three players in the world and if that is not incentive enough to focus on Augusta this week then there is the little matter of who this trio are up against as they try to redress a 16-year drought.
Despite winning one official title in more than two years, Tiger Woods is the clear favourite. And a worthy one. His victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last Sunday screamed of a superstar back in his orbit. If Woods produces a putting performance like he did at Bay Hill (62 of 67 putts holed from within 10 feet) he will be almost impossible to stop. Almost.
As the comeback kid Rory McIlroy's narrative is as irresistible as that of Woods. Last year's final-round 80 threatened to stall his career; or so claimed the doomsayers. Instead, he returns to Augusta with a major to his name and having held the world No 1 mantle. He drove out of Magnolia Lane 12 months ago like a teary-eyed child; he will drive back up it on Tuesday as a steely-eyed adult determined to thwart Woods. However, it's not only the Ulsterman standing in the way of Woods' fifth green jacket, despite all the "Tiger v Rory" hype.
Luke Donald is the world No 1 and goes in on the back of his own win, at the Transitions Championship two weeks ago, which took him past McIlroy at the top and showed he can now produce when required. Donald is peaking at the perfect time and with last year's fourth place as evidence, he heads to Georgia knowing that he has what it takes to march tall between the azaleas.
Of course, having led going into the back nine 13 years ago, Lee Westwood is also adamant he is a visit to the Butler Cabin waiting to happen. Like Donald, he will appreciate the benefit of attention resting elsewhere.
Certainly, a UK win is overdue. The void stretches back to Nick Faldo breaking the heart of Greg Norman in 1996 for the fifth British triumph in nine years. Then, later in '96, Woods turned professional and we've been waiting ever since. As Colin Montgomerie says: "This has got to be our best chance." Tiger or no Tiger.
1. Luke Donald
With a driving average of around 280 yards, the diminutive Donald is well-accustomed to conceding 30 to 40 yards to his rivals. If only length was his only shortfall. By his own admission, accuracy with the driver has been another problem. "When I'm struggling with my swing my driver generally suffers," says Donald. Yet he has worked tirelessly to find consistency and, as his record shows, he has improved. He knows it will never be a strength of his game, but also now believes it doesn't have to be a defining weakness either. "I tried to be something I'm not and injured myself trying to hit it further," says Donald, looking back to 2008. "But I appreciate I can only work on what I have and to improve on what I have." Under Pat Goss, his coach since college, Donald is hitting more fairways and is allowing his peerless iron-play and short-game to do its damage. The result is he can score anywhere.
"Luke's the best short-game player in the world," says Goss. "Bunker play, putting, getting up and down... within 30 yards of the green, he is the best." Few would disagree with Donald's coach. With Dave Alred, the guru of Johnny Wilkinson fame, as his performance coach, Donald keeps to strict schedules to ensure he gets the most from his practice, which features him spending hours around the green. Thus the sight of the 34-year-old holing from six feet for par has become one of the most familiar in big-time golf. "He gets into a mindset where he expects it of himself. Luke's bunker play is astonishing," says Pete Cowen, who works with Donald occasionally when Goss can't be on Tour. "It must be incredibly comforting to know you will very likely get it up and down. In turn this takes the pressure off his approach play. It's a wonderful weapon to have in the bag."
Donald has won five times in the last 13 months and on three of these occasions he has done so being under major-like pressure. Last May, he beat Lee Westwood in a play-off at Wentworth to take the world No 1 position off his countryman and then in October he won in Disney, Florida with the PGA Tour money list on the line. A fortnight ago, Donald was at it again, this time prevailing at the Transitions Championship at Tampa Bay, when only a win would have taken him back to No 1, curtailing Rory McIlroy's reign to a mere fortnight. So much for "Luke Donald Disease", the ridiculous moniker applied by an American journalist to what he saw as the Englishman's satisfaction in earning plenty while winning very little. "Success breeds success and I can feed off knowing that I am able to come up with the shots when the pressure is at its most. I hope it will help me in my quest for a major," says Donald. "That's the one thing missing from my resume. I've done everything but win one of the big four."
With a third and fourth place finish to his name, Donald has proved he can overcome his lack of length to score around Augusta National. So his driving does not suit the place, as he is forced to hit long irons into those treacherous greens. His short-game happens to made for the place. "You don't necessarily need to be long to win at Augusta," says Colin Montgomerie. "In recent times, Zach Johnson and Trevor Immelman have knocked down the myth. But then if you look at the likes of Faldo, Langer and Olazabal, none of them were monster hitters. Yet like Luke they had incredible short games. That's what Augusta is all about." Last year's fourth place may be the most significant, as when Donald holed his chip on the 18th, he genuinely believed he was in with a shout. "I know I can make birdies around Augusta," says Donald. "Driving will be the key."
Overall rating 16/20
2. Rory McIlroy
There are few sweeter sights in golf, if not all of sport, than McIlroy in full motion. "He's a flusher," says Michael Bannon, who has coached him since he was a boy. "Of course, it's a natural style, but his swing has evolved." Indeed, McIlroy and Bannon have made tweaks to his set-up, striving to give him yet more consistency. McIlroy has all but expunged the propensity to pull his driver, meaning his creative talent is put to its best use from the fairway. It is a little known fact, but a few years ago he was wired up to a computer and the golfing boffins discovered his swing was as close to perfect as ever has been recorded. "It's like he's on cruise control out there," says friend and rival Graeme McDowell. "He takes a few looks at where he wants to hit it on the fairway and 'boom'. Then he does with the same with the green. He makes it look so simple."
Dave Stockton has been at McIlroy's American base in Palm Beach, Florida, trying to effect yet more improvement to the Ulsterman's putting. JP Fitzgerald advised McIlroy in the hours following his final-round 80 last year to seek out the former US Ryder Cup captain.The results have been spectacular. Stockton introduced a freer stroke which capitalises on the feel McIlroy has in his long game. "It's the reason why I'm up there contending most weeks," said McIlroy. "When I do miss the green nowadays, I'm confident of getting it up and down."
Last year, McIlroy went to Augusta having won twice in a four-year career. In the past 12 months he has won four times, three of those arriving since August. McIlroy's mind has matured in time with his body, so the steeliness within accompanies the muscle on the exterior. While much of this improvement must be put down to his short game, his course management has made similar strides. "We've worked on that," says Bannon. They have come up with a gameplan, which is based on controlled aggression. McIlroy has found the balance between the gunslinger going for everything and the sheriff desperately keeping order.
"A year ago, Rory wouldn't have won the Honda Classic the way he did earlier this month, with Tiger breathing down his neck," says Montgomerie. Stuart Cage, his former manager, concurs. "If he had the same lead in the Masters again he would win by miles," says Cage.
One might consider McIlroy to be a Masters novice. He has played three times, missed the cut once and finished tied for 20th and 15th. Yet anyone who witnessed his meltdown last year will understand he bears the scars of a veteran. Indeed, he understands the two-faced, beauty and beast, nature of the National better than almost of his colleagues. "I've always believed you've had to be bitten by Augusta before you can win there," says Sir Nick Faldo. "It's fair to say McIlroy's had a few chunks out of him. He'll know what to do and what not to do now."
Overall rating 17/20.
3. Lee Westwood
"Tee to green, Lee is the best in the world," says his coach. As a Yorkshireman, Pete Cowen is not prone to hyperbole and as the coach to three of the last seven major winners he does not have to fish for reflected compliments. Always a great driver of the ball, Westwood's work in the gym with his fitness guru, Steve McGregor, has turned him into a fairway-finding machine. He has gone down from a 40-inch waist to a 34-inch waist and flexibility is his friend. "Now Lee can do physically what I want him to do," says Cowen. This involves searing irons as well as soaring woods. Wants for nothing in this department.
Westwood is more confident with his chipping than ever and believes he is rediscovering the nerveless touch with the putter which blessed his earlier years as a pro. Cowen suggested he work with Phil Kenyon, AKA "the Gerbil", who has made the time Westwood spends on the practice green much more structured. "I'm probably spending 40 per cent of my practice on the range and 60 per cent on or around the practice green," reports Westwood. "It's very difficult to win a major without making a few putts that are surprising or bonuses." Colin Montgomerie says: "If he can get the wand working Lee wins." But Westwood himself realises that is a sizable "if".
As his manager, Chubby Chandler, says: "You don't lift 37 titles on five different continents, over 16 years, without having a winning mentality." Indeed, you don't. And you don't post six top threes in your last 14 majors without being able to bring your A-game to the big stage. Furthermore, Westwood's record in the Ryder Cup signifies a competitor who can function in the hottest of atmospheres. Yet whether it is his fallibility on the greens or simply bad breaks, there has been that certain something missing at the business end of the majors. "One day the putts will drop and it will just click," says Chandler. "Lee is a born winner. He actually enjoys it when the tension is tight."
Westwood confessed to "wobbly legs" syndrome when he led on the 10th tee as a 26-year-old in 1999. If nothing else, the experience proved to him he had the game to cope in Georgia. The high ball flight, the distance control... tee to green, he has it all. Now, if the wand would work...
Overall rating 16/20.
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