Tiger and his prey: Woods hot on the trail if the sun comes out to play

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The Independent Online

However many regular tournaments Tiger Woods wins, however many he wins in a row, the world No 1 does not consider a year "great" until he has won a major championship.

The outrageous run that brought him seven titles in a row, and nine out of 10 before he slipped to fifth place at the CA Championship at Doral a fortnight ago, was just a bit of fun for Tiger. It was something to indulge in through the autumn and winter, while at the same time enjoying being a family man and tuning up his game a further notch for the serious stuff to come.

And the serious stuff starts on Thursday with the year's first major. With the chance to win another of the titles that really matter, the "streak", or rather its ending, is already forgotten.

Woods, who is five behind Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 majors, is better than anyone at putting all extraneous thoughts aside and concentrating on the job at hand. Usually that includes not looking too far ahead. But not this year. In a surprising revelation – not that he thinks he can do it but that he would say it – Tiger stated that the Grand Slam was "entirely within reason". You tangle with the golfing gods at your peril.

Woods has held all four major crowns before but not in the same year, as Bobby Jones did under a different configuration, as an amateur and before he got round to creating Augusta and the Masters, in 1930. "The question is, do I see it as a possibility, and I say 'Yes'," Tiger said.

"A lot of different factors go into it, and hopefully all those factors line up for me. I like all the venues, but I've liked all the venues before in the past. It's just a matter of getting your game coming together at the right time and getting all the right breaks. You're going to have to get lucky every now and then, and hopefully you get lucky at the right times."

This year's rotation sets it up nicely for Tiger. He has won four times at Augusta, most recently in 2005, and six times at Torrey Pines, which hosts the US Open. He only just missed out on a play-off at Royal Birkdale the last time the Open was there, in 1998, and he likes Oakland Hills, venue for the USPGA, despite America losing the Ryder Cup there four years ago.

As for his game, it's the rest who need the luck. His only hiccup was some distinctly human-like frailties on the greens over the weekend at Doral. No one holes everything, although Tiger gives that impression. At Bay Hill the week before he holed every putt bar one from inside seven feet.

So who can challenge Woods? Phil Mickelson, a two-time winner who is now having the occasional flakiness knocked out of him by Tiger's old coach Butch Harmon, should. And Ernie Els could if he is over his viral infection.

No Australian has ever won the green jacket, as desperately as Greg Norman tried, but Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 US Open champion, was an impressive wire-to-wire winner at Doral. His compatriot Adam Scott may reward the patience of his fans, but his putting under pressure is still a weakness, as it is for Sergio Garcia.

The Open champion, Padraig Harrington, is Europe's best bet, while of the English contenders Lee Westwood might be the oldest but also the canniest. No Colin Montgomerie this year for entertainment value, but there is still plenty of anticipation for this rite of spring.

If only the weather wouldco-operate. Last year it was freezing cold and the course, now at 7,445 yards, played long for everyone. Perhaps it should not have been a surprise that a shorter hitter such as Zach Johnson stole the green jacket. Famously, the American laid up at all four par-fives all four days and played them in 11 under par. He played the rest of the course in 12 over.

Warmer weather will bring the power hitters more to the fore again and produce more birdies, eagles and roars, all on the rare side last year. The omens are good, 20 years on from Sandy Lyle's birdie at the last to win and 50 since Arnold Palmer first set the place alight.

Next Sunday is 13 April, a date of much history at Augusta: Nicklaus winning a furious battle with Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf in 1975; returning to win a glorious sixth jacket in 1986; and Tiger's historic win by 12 strokes in 1997. Something equally historic may be in the offing but, one hopes, not Tiger winning by a dozen again.

Three to challenge the Americans

Padraig Harrington

Irish hero believes he has found the secret to success at the highest level in winning the Open last year. Skipped the WGC at Doral – he reckons he peaks on his third week of competition so warmed up in New Orleans (tied fourth) and Houston.

Retief Goosen

A poor 12 months saw the South African drop to 28th in the rankings but he found form at Doral as runner-up. Yet to win a green jacket, but has a stunning record at Augusta: second twice (last year included), third twice, no lower than 13th in past six years.

K J Choi

Third at Augusta in 2004, his best major, but the Korean is now a consistent winner on the US Tour, with impressive wins at Muirfield Village and Congressional last year. Has formed a formidable partnership with his English caddie, Andy Prodger, who steered Nick Faldo to victory at Augusta in 1989.

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