Tiger’s missed opportunity

Entering the first round yesterday, Tiger Woods held an all important psychological advantage over most of his rivals.

Tiger’s missed opportunity

Starting early, he had the opportunity to lay down a marker for the rest of the field.

With the loudest cheers around Augusta almost exclusively reserved for the sentimental favourites, there is nothing Woods would have liked better than to light up the scoreboard early with red figures.

It would have had the course rocking and would have significantly notched up the pressure on those waiting to play later and still powerless to do anything.

But his first big opportunity passed early. A notoriously slow and conservative starter, throughout his career, bogeys on the fourth and fifth holes and again early in his back nine to drop back to three over par, meant the later starters, like our own Rory McIlroy, would have enjoyed their pre-round lunch a little more.

Opportunity lost over the first 13 holes, the psychological battle had now reversed itself on Woods as he found himself rallying ferociously to keep himself competitive on the back nine knowing that his main rivals could build a lead before he starts his second round.

A 73, of course, is not the worst score in the world but Tiger now has to play really well over the next couple of days if he is to stand any chance of competing for the title on Sunday afternoon.

Since Tiger’s last win at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational in 2013, the professional golfing landscape has dramatically changed, dominated by a group of players who have taken turns seizing the mantle of best player in the world.

There is no doubting but that the swings of the likes of McIlroy, Spieth, Day, Johnson, and Thomas have benefited hugely from more consistent technology, but more and more it seems that with endorsement money as big as it currently is and other life distractions so enticing, there may never again be a player with the insatiable hunger and unwavering focus and dominance as Woods had in his prime.

Game and course strategy has also changed. Today, it seems, is more about overpowering golf courses than negotiating your way carefully around its many obstacles.

This week by way of verifying that fact, McIlroy was quick to point out that he was keen to implement a more aggressive course strategy for his Grand Slam bid.

Having recently won so impressively at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Rory McIlroy is my personal favourite for this year’s title. That victory has given him back some of his swagger on the course, which in turn helps him to intimidate his opponents.

He would have been thrilled starting out yesterday to see no one setting the course alight.

Although honest enough to admit that he needs to move away from an overly conservative and respectful course strategy, his natural aggression this weekend needs to be tempered with enough appreciation and respect for a ball out of position — the rescue attempts from which have led to all sorts of uncompetitive scoring disasters.

Having agreed with almost anyone who wants to talk to him that this week’s Augusta test is his biggest tournament of the year, his success or not will be decided by the accuracy of his approach play, his putting, and, in my view, the performance of his caddy, Harry Diamond.

On form, we know that McIlroy fears no one and he has the added luxury of being able to win from in front or behind in the last round, but the nature of Augusta National means that it is a huge ask for a man looking to win his first career Grand Slam to have to do everything himself, especially down the closing stretch when you are trying to stay composed and fend off the best and most competitive field of the year.

That said, a birdie on the opening hole yesterday couldn’t have been a better start for McIlroy.

In fact, on one of the course’s more difficult holes, it was a statement.

Game on.

Although early days still, it is interesting to note the type of players close to the top of the leaderboard on what seems to be a relatively difficult day for scoring.

Players like Stenson, Singh, Thomas, Reed, Mickelson, and of course McIlroy are all great ball strikers but they are also very experienced players who have been competing at the top tier of professional golf now for some time.

For those on the outside looking in, they already know that these players are only going to feed off each other now and drive themselves onto better things.

They have already gained a slight psychological advantage and winning at the very top, especially in major championships, is always a matter of very fine margins.

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