Maturing Woods' natural habitat

US Masters: Augusta could have been designed for golf's young genius, but talent abounds in the hunting pack; Andy Farrell says the year's first major calls for a course and distance specialist
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The Independent Online
If Tiger Woods requires any aid in understanding that the best- laid plans of sharks and men can go awry at Augusta National, and the indications are that this 21-year-old is mature enough not to, then he need only turn to the videotape of the final round of last year's US Masters.

There were plenty of people ready to slip a green jacket on to Greg Norman's shoulders after the third round a year ago, but they keep those particular garments under lock and key until dusk is falling on the second Sunday evening in April. No one knows that better than Norman, who arrived at Augusta in 1981, was nicknamed the "Great White Shark"and finished fourth on his first appearance.

The question everyone asked was not when he would win, but how often? We are still waiting. The Australian has finished in the top six eight times, but never won the Masters. The brilliance of Nick Faldo's 67 and a stinker of a 78 by Norman himself meant another chance slipped away 12 months ago. Seve Ballesteros was meant to possess a rackful of jackets after winning twice in four years in the early 1980s, but he cannot equal Faldo's three victories. Only two men have won more times: Jack Nicklaus with six and Arnold Palmer with four. "Arnold and I both agreed that you could take his Masters and my Masters, and add them together, and this kid should win more than that," said Nicklaus after a practice round with Woods last year.

Unbelievable. The Golfer of the Century and his closest rival for the accolade declare you are better than both of them put together. How can you begin to live up to such an exaggerated endorsement? "I think it is an honour that he said that, that he thinks that highly of my game," Woods said.

"Obviously, everyone knows I hit the ball a long ways off the tee, and I hit the ball very high. And those are the two key principles that you have to have in order to do very well at Augusta. You don't see a lot of low ball hitters doing well in modern times because the greens are so hard now."

Length, though, is not everything at Augusta, otherwise the last four winners, in reverse order, would not read Faldo, Ben Crenshaw, Jose Maria Olazabal and Bernhard Langer. Nicklaus could overpower the course in the 1960s and 1970s, but since the greens were changed from Bermuda to bentgrass in 1980, it is the finesse of a Faldo that has come to the fore.

The weather now plays its part. When the course is soft, aggression is rewarded. After overnight rain, Norman equalled Nick Price's course record of 63 in the first round last year. Woods has aggression aplenty. But when the course has dried out, which it had by Sunday last year, it is time for Price's favourite oxymoron, cautious aggression. Now, does Woods have that in his bag?

Woods is not the only long hitter for whom the course is a par-69, since all the par-fives, with the exception of the uphill eighth, are regularly in range in two. In his two appearances as an amateur, when he was 41st and missed the cut, he has played the par-fives in eight under. But he has been two over for the par-threes and 17 over for the par-fours.

Just because of his length, Woods found himself hitting a lot of short iron approaches, which because of a swing fault he says has been corrected since turning pro, he often sent flying over the green. After seven months as a professional, he is a different Woods this time, one who was not required to be doing exams the week before.

Amid the hype, it is a surprise to find a dissenting voice, especially that of a fishing partner, Mark O'Meara. "Tiger Woods is a heck of a player, there is no question about it," said O'Meara, who led the US money list until Steve Elkington won the Players Championship last Sunday. "But there are a lot of talented young players around. Stuart Appleby, who won three weeks ago, is pretty impressive. Paul Stankowski has won five times in 11 months, but I don't see anybody writing about him."

Maybe not, but maybe we should be writing about Phil Mickelson, still only 26, and seventh and third at Augusta in the last two years. He has the required genius in his short game and, if he missed the cut at Sawgrass last week after winning at Bay Hill, then Elkington did the same between winning at Doral and the Players. The castlist of suspects is, as usual, as wide as the Augusta fairways. Ernie Els and Tom Lehman should be given consideration.

Since Augusta is such a contrary place, you can even make a case for Colin Montgomerie, despite a best finish of 17th in 1995 which suggests his fade is ill-equipped for the right-to-left course. Monty will be under orders from his wife to claim his first eagle, for which Mrs Monty will get the pleasure of dusting a pair of crystal goblets. For all the time Europe's No 1 will spend on the putting green, he might do as well to analyse the positions he will actually have to putt from.

No one knows better than Faldo that the approach shots are the key to holing putts at Augusta. Though he has slightly lost the form which brought him victory at Riviera a month ago, and he was not happy on the greens at Sawgrass, he was clearly motivated by playing with Woods in the final round last week. His game went up a notch on the front nine and, though still claiming a one-up victory at the last, was disappointed to let it slip on the back nine.

Should they be paired again, Woods charging over the back nine, Faldo defending, a week today at Augusta, we might find out whether Woods is the genuine article, or a PR man's dream.