Woods primed to make most of his ‘second chance on life’
Masters stars are aligned with big players on form, but a fifth win for Tiger would eclipse them all
It surely says so much about Tiger Woods and his remarkable comeback from the brink of retirement that he is monopolising the Augusta headlines despite the absurdly strong competition. The experts assure us that what makes the 82nd Masters ‘the most eagerly anticipated ever’ is the fact that all the stars have aligned at the same time. But we all know it revolves around the red-shirted one, the very life force of the sport.
Rory McIlroy is at last back in winning, strutting form and aiming to become just the sixth player in history to complete the career grand slam.
Phil Mickelson is seemingly back to his swashbuckling best, having lifted his first title in five years and is gunning to become the oldest-ever Masters champion.
Dustin Johnson, the world No 1, has tasted victory this year and is out to atone for falling down the stairs when the overwhelming favourite 12 months ago.
Justin Thomas is the hottest player in the game and can wrest the No 1 role if he can win his second major in as many attempts.
Justin Rose has been on a ridiculous run and is seeking the green jacket snatched from his grasp by Sergio Garcia in a play-off last year.
Bubba Watson is a multiple champion this season and plainly on the hunt for a third Augusta title after almost quitting himself.
All these stories and more (Paul Casey finally landing the major his talent deserves, anyone?) would usually top the billing. But not this year.
Not when Woods himself is calling himself “a walking miracle”.
Put the two images side by side and feel the redemptive power. That mugshot of a bleary-eyed Woods in a Florida police station, after being found slumped across his steering wheel, smashed out of his mind on prescription medicines. Then picture Garcia, of all people, putting the jacket over his shoulders in the Butler Cabin. The two wildly contrasting scenes would have happened within just 11 months of each other.
Of course, there are other pictures of Woods’s troubles in recent years that would make that Augusta fairytale seem less like a dream and more like an hallucination inspired by opiates.
Woods had been an agonised, dishevelled mess for more than two years before the operation in April, which fused his spine at the same time as promising to link two unbelievable chapters together. Tiger thought he was done, we thought he was done. But as he says, “I have a second chance on life.” And that refers to so much more than simply his golfing career.
The sex scandal, the DUI, the shame, the ridicule… in public perception, all of that would be cast into the shade on a sunny April Sunday in Georgia.
Winning always has fixed everything in Woods’s mind and here he is, presented with the most tantalising opportunity to effect the biggest overhaul in the history of sport. All it takes is one last Tiger prowl around his natural habit, within that cathedral of pines where he was first crowned exactly half his lifetime ago at 21. Could he possibly?
Woods’s second and fifth placings in his past two events – which were just his third and fourth official tournaments since his return in December – have convinced so many it is feasible.
Yet he has not won a major in 10 years and any tournament in five years. As Butch Harmon, his former coach, emphatically replied when asked if Woods really should be considered the
Woods has already made history in this Masters. No other sportsman or sportswoman has ever been put at the top of the betting lists for one of the biggest events on the calendar when ranked 104th in the world. And it is not even as if there is a void of weaknesses in his game when it comes to the unique test of Augusta.
“I don’t really think we have seen how he can handle the big event yet,” Harmon said. “He knows the course at Augusta better than anyone, but it’s a different animal there now.
“He has got to drive the ball better to have a chance. In his last few tournaments we’ve seen him go to his driving-iron, but you can’t do that at Augusta. The one thing I would say about Woods is that you can never say never. Now, do I think he is going to win? No, I don’t. But would I like to see him win? Damn right I would.”
Harmon says this as someone who was not only sacked by Woods, but who coaches Johnson and Rickie Fowler. He will be at Augusta not just to guide his clients, but also to give his undoubted expertise on the Sky broadcast.
Harmon’s craving for a Woods win shows not only his own class as an individual, but also what it would mean for the sport. It is not likely, yet it is intoxicating.
Harmon actually favours McIlroy after watching him win at Bay Hill two weeks ago for his first triumph in 18 months. “My money would be on Rory,” Harmon said. “He is driving the ball wonderfully, he putts beautifully now – he seems to have got that straightened out – so, for me, I would make him the favourite.”
McIlroy could want it more than even Woods, however. And that compromises his candidature. Paul McGinley, his friend and former Ryder Cup captain, explained the burden.
“He has the hand of history on his shoulder,” McGinley said. “There’s a reason why only five have done the ‘Slam’ – it’s a very difficult thing to accomplish. He’s on the edge of history. The thing about Rory at Augusta is that since that final-round 80 [in 2011], he really hasn’t been in contention to win.”
As ever, McGinley is spot-on. Of course, the 28-year-old could simply stride away and cruise home on what is forecast to be a soft layout because of the rains. But the pressure will be huge if he can shoot himself into the picture. Gaining entry into the Augusta Champions’ Locker Room is one thing; joining the exclusive club containing only Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen quite another.
A personal fancy is for Johnson to prevail and make up for that Wednesday tumble last year when the whole shebang seemed at his mercy. The word is, a bungalow has been booked this time around.
It comes down to Harmon. “I’m telling you, if DJ gets his driving sorted out, you’re going to have to deal with him on Sunday,” he said.
‘Do I think Tiger is going to win? No. But would I like to see him win? Damn right I would’
Bouncing back: Tiger Woods has returned from the brink of retirement and is aiming to add to his collection of Masters titles