CAN anyone stop Tiger Woods from winning his fifth Masters title and his 15th major championship?
That’s the question dominating all conversation here in Augusta where the good news is that the cold, strong wind of the early days of the week were yesterday replaced by sunny and calm conditions.
The 7,435-yards golf course remains a daunting proposition with many predicting that the player who betters Trevor Immelman’s total of eight under par last year will be the man slipping on the green jacket on Sunday.
If that suffices, it’s impossible to escape the feeling that Woods will be the one to cash in.
If you’re lucky, you might get a bookmaker to offer you 2 to 1 against the world number one. His degree of favouritism is best reflected by the fact that a long way further back in the market comes two-times champion Phil Mickelson (17/2) while Pádraig Harrington is on offer at 16/1 despite capturing the last two major championships.
The 2006 US Open winner and recently-crowned Accenture World Match Play champion Geoff Ogilvy can be backed at (20/1), last week’s Houston champion Paul Casey at (28/1) while world number three Sergio Garcia is at 33/1.
All of which suggests this is a one-horse race. That could hardly be the case given the enormous depth of talent in the field but Woods isn’t arguing.
He said: “I know I can do it and it’s hard for me to sit here and tell you it can’t be done.”
Ask why he hasn’t pulled on the famous jacket since 2005, he fastened those dark, forbidding eyes on the inquisitor and explained: “For the last couple of years, my putting here has been streaky. I got on rolls where I couldn’t make anything; you have to be very consistent around this course, especially now there are not too many birdie opportunities.”
Patience is a word sportsmen of all codes frequently bring to the fore and Woods is no exception where Augusta and the Masters are concerned. There are times, too, when he looks almost superhuman on the golf course but he admitted that even he needs a confidence booster from time to time. It came at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill and it’s just one more reason why he goes into action today feeling so good about his chances.
“There was a lot of uncertainty over the months and months of rehab and it felt great to hit the kind of shots I hit at Bay Hill,” he enthused. “But if you look at the landscape of the Tour in 1996 when I came out here versus here in 2009, there are a lot more guys with a chance to win each and every week. The fields are getting deeper and it makes it harder to win.”
No matter what he says publicly, you know that just below the surface is his feeling, nay belief, that he will win if he brings his A game along. If he doesn’t and the putter doesn’t behave, there is a chance for a others like Phil Mickelson, winner here in 2004 and 2006, to claim the honours.
Those closest to ‘Lefty’ believe he will be a strong contender provided he putts better than he did when missing the cut in Houston last week. Prior to that, though, he had captured the Northern Trust Los Angeles Open and the WGC-CA Championship which is impressive form to carry into the Masters.
And then there’s our own Pádraig Harrington. He came here intending to slip under the publicity radar as much as possible and to avoid talking about what the Americans have hyped up as ‘The Paddy Slam’. He has succeeded pretty well in that aim though the American crowds have taken him to their hearts and went wild as he made his way to the first tee at yesterday’s Par 3 event with his five year-old son Paddy as caddie!
It is strongly hinted that Woods turned down a request to play a practice round with Rory McIlroy because he didn’t want to teach a young man, whom he clearly regards as a potential threat, new tricks.
Nor was he prepared to talk up Harrington’s prospects of the three-in-a-row when pointedly observing that: “I remember trying to do it myself and it’s not going to be easy.”
It’s a cutthroat business out there and while that might intimidate some, I believe it will only serve to spur Harrington onto greater things. It has been anything but a good campaign for him this season and he and his driver have not been on the best of terms of late. But you sense his confidence hasn’t been unduly dented and that he is fully capable of at least improving on his fifth place finishes here in 2002 and again last year.
“I would like to have a bit of form earlier but this year is not hugely different to any other,” he said.
“The last two weeks have been encouraging. I was in contention in both tournaments and that’s exactly what you want.
“I did lose my patience in the wind last Sunday but I’m glad it was then and not next Sunday.
“It’s hard to win something totally out of the blue — you have to be building your form into a tournament and competing and feeling the nerves. You know you’re going to have it on the Sunday here if you’re in contention so you want some practice of being in the lead or near it.”
Have no doubt, Harrington can again lift a nation’s morale — provided he avoids the kind of penalty shots (nine in all) that shattered his chance in Houston and is on the best of relationships with his driver and putter.
And even that mightn’t be enough if Tiger brings along his A game!
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