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

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Rugby - James Cor­ri­gan GOLF COR­RE­SPON­DENT favourite – “No.”

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

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