For several reasons, the first day of this year's US Masters was a humdinger. It was a humdinger for those of us who enjoy laughing at silly American names, with Cink, Funk and Gump at one point clustered together on the leaderboard, and Rocco Mediate there or thereabouts, making it disappointing that Duffy Waldorf could not mount a decent challenge. More significantly, it was a humdinger because Tiger played more like Tigger. This was a good thing because the pundits, the bookies, even his fellow competitors, had been more or less suggesting that as long as young Woods safely negotiated Magnolia Drive on Thursday morning, he would be virtually assured of his second Green Jacket.
It was plainly nonsense, although I wasn't quite bold enough to say so in print, just in case there was a repetition of his runaway victory in 1997 and it again became a question of who would finish second. Instead, thank heavens, the Masters turned out to be a keen contest, with Woods looking distinctly mortal at least during the first two days. Tiger is wonderful for the game in terms of public relations, being not only sublimely gifted but also tall, athletic and handsome, with a smile that melts ice-caps. Most satisfying of all in what remains a predominantly white, middle-class sport, he is black with a Thai mother and Native American Indian ancestry. But his dominance is not wonderful for the game. We don't want major tournament golf to go the way of the Scottish Premier League, with Tiger cast as Rangers, David Duval as Celtic, Colin Montgomerie as Motherwell, and V J Singh, say, as Dundee United.
It won't happen. It can't happen. Yet that's the way some folk were talking a week ago, including plenty who should know better. Woods will never win the Grand Slam of golf's four major championships. I'll stake my shirt on it, or what's left of my shirt after Addington Boy's gallant failure to sneak an each-way place in the Grand National. In fact I'll go further. Jack Nicklaus has suggested that his extraordinary record of 20 major championship victories is in danger from Tiger, but Jack, although I probably wouldn't say it to his face, is talking piffle.
A Jack Nicklaus, like a Don Bradman and a Kevin Campbell, only comes along once a century, and perhaps not quite that frequently. Some people say that Nicklaus had it easier, that he established his dominance in a less competitive era. But to put that claim into perspective, look how he fared at Augusta. Never mind the third-round 81, can you imagine the 60-year-old Tiger Woods on the US Masters leaderboard? I can't. Which goes to show that Nicklaus is unique. Yet even he never really threatened to win the Grand Slam. The closest he came was his annus mirabilis of 1972, when he won the Masters and the US Open, then fired a thrilling last-round 66 in the Open Championship at Muirfield, to finish second by a shot from Lee Trevino. At Oakland Hills in the USPGA he tied for a pedestrian 13th place behind Gary Player.
Last Thursday and Friday, the romantic grouping of Nicklaus, Player and Arnold Palmer evoked those golden years of the 1960s and 1970s, when the sun always shone and the par-five 15th at Augusta could not be reached, even by the Golden Bear at his growliest, with a drive and a nine-iron. For Palmer, the occasion was purely ceremonial. At 70, the old boy seems to have finally accepted that he is no longer a bona fide competitor, witness his remark to the BBC's Dougie Donnelly, that he had played pretty well for his second-round 82. Player can't really keep up with the whippersnappers either,although he would doubtless remind me that several Ryder Cup players would happily have exchanged their second-round scores for his 74, among them Hal Sutton and Jose-Maria Olazabal.
Which brings us to the phenomenon that is J W Nicklaus. The football pundit Alan Hansen, himself a two-handicap golfer, was at the Masters a couple of years ago, when Nicklaus briefly moved into genuine contention on the last day. And Hansen told me that the great man's rise up the leaderboard generated an atmosphere like nothing he had ever experienced, which is quite something from a man who once lifted the European Cup at the Parc des Princes. It was, he said, "unreal". Unreal, but true. And on Friday Nicklaus got the crowd wondering again. A year after a hip replacement, could he truly be thinking of winning the tournament? You bet he could. Astonishingly, he had in mind a seventh Green Jacket, at a time of life when most men are content with a beige cardie. Moreover, the Open this year is back at St Andrews, where Nicklaus has won twice before. If anyone will offer me 100-1, I'll have a tenner each way.
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