Woods plays it straight over course changes

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The Independent Online

Apart from being put in a ring with Mike Tyson, the sort of birthday present most members of the PGA Tour would be all too willing to arrange, few things intimidate Tiger Woods. On a golf course it has happened only once, when he was 11 and competing in a World Junior event. "I was playing with a 12-year-old and we came to a par-four of 290 yards and he drove the green," Woods recalled.

"I was taken aback. I felt I could not compete. But I ended up beating him in the tournament and, though I didn't win, I gave myself a chance to win. I realised there is no point being intimidated on the course. I don't know what he's doing these days."

Giving himself a chance to win is what Woods, the world No 1, is currently doing better than anyone else, which is why he enters the 64th US Masters tomorrow as the hot favourite. The 24-year-old has won 13 times in the last year - and won three times, and finished second three times, in seven starts this year.

"You are not going to win every week but if you put yourself up there enough times you will win your share," Woods said. "That's what Jack Nicklaus was so good at. For 15 years, he was there on the back nine on Sunday of every major."

Nicklaus' record of 18 majors, previously considered untouchable, is what drives Woods, the reigning USPGA champion. A second green jacket, after his record-shattering victory at Augusta in 1997, is a priority. "I think the Masters and the British Open are the two majors that set up best for me," Woods said. "I have been targeting this week. My game has been getting better week to week."

Woods is not overly enthusiastic about the so called 'Tigerproofing' of Augusta National, the introduction of rough last year and the narrowing of the fairways this year. "It is such a great course, I don't see why they have to change it every year," he said. "Maybe they get bored. They are almost trying to take big, long driving out of the equation. You have to play a bit differently. You have to be patient and concentrate on putting the ball in the fairway. It is more of a mental game than in the past."

But don't run away with the idea that the course does not suit Woods. "It still helps anyone who hits the ball long and high which, last time I checked, is what I do. Even when I won, the fairways may have been wide but you still had to hit the right half of the fairway."

Darren Clarke visibly puffed when introduced in the press interview room as a "Tiger tamer". The Irishman's victory over the world No 1 at the World Matchplay in San Diego has given him a new belief. "Before I thought I could compete, now I know I can. There is a big difference," Clarke said.

Clarke's biggest threat this week may be catching chicken pox from his 20-month-old son, Tyrone. "We've been searching through the records but no one can tell me if I have had it or not," he said. Lee Westwood, however, was already laid up yesterday morning following a bout of food poisoning on Tuesday night. He will attempt to play nine holes today and will probably miss the par-three tournament.

"My allergy to America has come back," Westwood said. He coughed and spluttered to sixth place at Augusta last year, ended up on a saline drip at the USPGA and withdrew from the LA Open earlier this year with tonsillitis.

There was better news for Paul Lawrie, the reigning Open champion, who has been awarded honorary membership of the European tour along with Greg Norman.