KIERAN SHANNON: Get ready to enjoy Masters at work

Ten years ago, almost to the week, Earl Woods gave his assessment on how his son had just won his third US Masters.

Befitting a man who once claimed his Tiger would do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity, Woods Snr neatly declared, “The more he wins, the easier it becomes for him. They (the rest of the field) are the trees. He is the forest fire. They don’t have anything to stop him.”

Tiger hasn’t won a lot, these past 30 months or so, other than notoriety, but at least on Sunday he got back winning. There won’t be anything easy about winning the Masters, the rest of the field won’t just pave a path for him, but after Bay Hill, you can be sure the rest of the field will know about him at some stage as his game at Augusta invariably catches a blaze. It’s something actually that he maybe hasn’t got enough credit for, just how competitive he’s continued to be at Augusta this past couple of years. Phil Mickelson might have been the winner and story of 2010 but Woods was one of his strongest challengers in his first post-fire hydrant tournament. Think of just what an achievement that was: to finish fourth with the eyes of the entire world, not just watching, but judging you, and you not having picked up a club in competition since your missus swung one at you.

Last year, he also helped make the Masters the Masters. Rory McIlroy may have been the story though not quite the winner of Augusta 2011 but what transformed his collapse into an outright choke was his hook off the 10th tee with the roar of a Woods birdie still ringing in his ears and around the course. The threat of Tiger was very real to him, as much as his real opponent was himself, and while McIlroy might have had the nerve to steel off Tiger’s late challenge to win the Honda Classic last month, the truth is that on that occasion, Tiger had left himself with that bit too much to do.

Rory may be a different animal to the one he was 12 months ago but so too is Tiger and the prospect of how McIlroy copes with the scenario of Woods on the prowl just behind or beside him is what makes the upcoming Masters one of the most tantalising prospects in world sport this year.

Then, of course, there’s Phil. He’s likely to be in the mix as well. It’s hard to see a situation where at least two of the three of them aren’t right up there. Consistency is their middle name.

Only once in his last 11 tournaments has Rory finished outside the top five.

Tiger hasn’t finished outside the top six at Augusta since his last win there in 2005. In fact in 11 of his last 14 visits there, he’s finished in the top eight. That’s $6.825m (€5.1m) won at just one golf course this past 15 years.

Yet Mickelson is right there with him with 13 Top 10 finishes at the course, pocketing a cool $5.2m (€3,9m) for all his April exploits there.

It’s that consistency, that tendency to always be in contention, which is what makes them great.

But then there is Greatness and then there is Nicklaus greatness.

Jack might have won 18 majors but what reinforced his greatness was that he was runner-up in 19 others, and third in nine more. Add it all up, and his number of top-three major finishes is 46 — the very age Nicklaus was when he won the last of those Majors.

That’s the equivalent of 11 and a half-seasons doing nothing but finishing in the top three.

Tiger currently has ‘only’ half Jack’s number of top-three major finishes. Phil has finished on that invisible podium 17 times.

Rory? He’s already been on it four times. Funnily enough, the Masters is the one major he’s yet to win a bronze, silver or green jacket. You get the feeling that’ll change in a fortnight but the rejuvenated old couple might see to it he has to settle for a colour he wouldn’t want.

In recent weeks and months it’s been only natural that Rory has been invariably compared to Woods, with Pádraig Harrington going so far as to say if anyone is likely to break Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors, it will probably be McIlroy. Maybe he will, though we fancy Tiger’s chances better and cringe whenever it’s thrown at him that if he fails to reach that mark, he’s somehow not the golfer he was cracked up to be, as if it was a mistake for him to aim for the stars.

What neither Tiger nor the new Tiger will emulate is Jack’s magical 46 top-threes, even if they’re still winning majors like him at 46.


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