Woods right on schedule to start the procession

World No 1's formidable form ensures status as Masters favourite as 'Tigermania' sees wild predictions of an unprecedented Grand Slam
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The Independent Online

Tiger woods enters the 64th Masters priced as low as 9-4 against a field of 94 rival players. To win the Grand Slam, never previously achieved, the world No 1 is quoted at the ridiculous odds of 33-1. These, though, are far from the most fatuous manifestations of 'Tigermania'. Hal Sutton, the Players champion, may not pray to Woods when he slips under the bedcovers but, sadly yet unsurprisingly in America, there is someone who does.

The website www.TigerWoodsisGod.com has been set up by one John Ziegler, an unemployed radio talk show host from Philadelphia who presumably could do with the publicity. "I personally believe there is more documented evidence that Tiger could be God than there is for Jesus Christ," Ziegler told the Augusta Chronicle. "Perhaps it's only because Tiger is living in the TV age. But if you really look at him closely, it's hard to dispute the possibility that he may be God."

Woods, of course, can do without this nonsense but has learnt to take it in his stride. "Really? I hadn't heard of that one," Woods said on being told of the website. "I'll have to check it out."

Apart from having to let out the green jacket Woods received for winning at Augusta in 1997, a result of his fitness regime, the 24-year-old has matured into his role as a sporting icon. After his 12-stroke win three years ago, President Clinton invited Woods to a baseball game commemorating Jackie Robinson. Woods declined, ungraciously, but has recently apologised to Robinson's widow. "Jackie will always be one of my heroes," Woods told her.

Lee Elder is another and this year marks the 25th anniversary of Elder's Augusta debut, when he became the first black golfer to play in the Masters. Elder is disappointed more have not followed, as is Woods. "We need to enlarge the pool of minorities playing the game," he said. "It doesn't matter if people reach the PGA or the LPGA tours, but if they have the opportunity to play, then more kids will fall in love with this game. Once you get the bug, it grabs you."

For the first time, Woods has suggested he may play on the Senior Tour. "If you look on all the demands as a burden, then it will get you down. I just love to play golf. Since I turned pro, I love it even more because I get to do it more often. I might be like Arnie [Palmer] and play until I'm 70."

Palmer recognises a soul mate. "When you see the expression on his face when he hits a shot, you know how he feels about the game," Palmer said. This is Palmer's 46th visit to the Masters but his first both without his late wife, Winnie - Gene Sarazen and Payne Stewart have also been lost since last year's tournament - and as an Augusta member (the champions have only honorary status).

Palmer got no reply when he wrote in to ask whether that meant he could now play from the members' tees but the nostalgia quotient will be high enough when he plays with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. "We are playing at 1.25. We'll have to be quick because I go to bed at 5pm."

The threesome total 13 Masters titles. Nicklaus said in 1996 that Woods would better his and Palmer's tally of 10. It is the sense of history that still separates the game's major championship from regular tour events, perhaps more so as week-to-week purses escalate ever higher. Of the Grand Slam, Woods said: "I won eight times last year, I just need to make it the right four weeks."

If that remark was slightly tongue-in-cheek, Woods has been chillingly serious in describing his game so far this season - when he has had six top-two finishes in seven events - as "right on schedule". Should he manage to peak as he did three years ago, then another procession could be in store.

But Woods is the first to recognise that unless he is at his best any potential intimidation factor is worthless. "I don't know if people are looking at my name on the leaderboard the first day or if they are trying to beat me the first day. It's a long race. I like the fact I have three days to get myself into contention on Sunday. That's where I want to be."

Quite who will show up there with him is an intriguing question. Of his three recent conquerors, Hal Sutton has not made a cut at the Masters since 1985, Darren Clarke had a good debut two years ago while Phil Mickelson fancies his chances here. Colin Montgomerie, happy with his putting for once following his third place at the Players, has changed his mind about the tournament. "I won't be standing on the first tee wishing it was June and the US Open," said the European No 1. "I'll be thinking this would be nice to win."

Not surprisingly, the narrower fairways - although the average width is still a generous 36 yards - are to the liking of the straight-driving Monty. "It is better for the likes of me," he said. "It looks good, there is more definition and it will play tougher. You have to be on the fairway." Often Montgomerie's problems in America have come from his interaction with those outside the fairways. "I have noticed a difference this year," he said. "A lot of Americans were embarrassed at what happened at Brookline in the Ryder Cup and appreciate what I did there and what I have done in the past. People have told me so in restaurants, hotels, gas stations as well as other players."

Lee Westwood had got over his food poisoning sufficiently to practice yesterday, while Sergio Garcia, the low amateur a year ago, says he is more content on the course with his new caddie, Glenn Murray, than with Fanny Sunesson, whom he sacked two weeks ago. "If I am not happy, I do not play well," he said.

At Augusta, however, youth is not everything. Nowhere does experience play more of a role. If Jose Maria Olazabal has ruled out another unlikely victory, two players who never say never are the 1996 final-round duellists, Nick Faldo and Greg Norman. This is Norman's 20th appearance at a venue he would dearly love to win. "If I thought about why I have not won, I'd go crazy," Norman said. "To analyse it and come up with a logical answer is not logical. Not for me."