Wednesday 29 January 2020

Big beasts lurking in the azaleas

Some heavy hitters are coming into form at just the right time for the US Masters, says Dermot Gilleece

While the 76th US Masters edged ever closer, Rory McIlroy appeared set to become the first Irishman to start favourite for the opening Major of the season. Then all was changed, changed utterly by dramatic happenings at Bay Hill, which have given promise of the most exciting staging in recent history, starting on Thursday at Augusta National.

"Watch out boys," Johnny Miller warned preening rivals. "Tiger is back."

Indeed he is, as a late 7/2 favourite with Paddy Power to win a fifth green jacket in a setting which has always inspired him.

This is also a hugely significant Masters from an Irish perspective, with the presence of two reigning Major champions. And with McIlroy and Darren Clarke being joined by Graeme McDowell and Pádraig Harrington, the chance of a breakthrough success has never looked brighter.

Indeed recent rehearsals have made the overall mood on this side of the pond decidedly upbeat. McIlroy's Honda victory was followed by success at Doral by Justin Rose and a marvellous play-off win by Luke Donald in the Transitions Championship. Then last weekend, McDowell battled impressively to claim runner-up position behind the re-emerging Great One in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

They face a challenge which, though ever-changing, remains remarkably constant. An original, overall length of 6,700 yards in 1934 was extended to 6,965 in 1956, 7,020 in 1974, 7,270 in 2002 and 7,435 in 2009. And a so-called secondary cut of rough was introduced in 1999.

Yet conquering Augusta has always been about its iconic greens which, according to Nick Faldo, can be unfairly fast on occasions. "They go to the limit all the time," said the three-time champion. "You get there on Monday and Tuesday when they're unbelievably fast. Then, after players struggle, they try to slow them down before building them up again. The trick with Augusta is the way they put down a mega-fine top-dressing on the Wednesday night. This gets the moisture out and by Thursday morning, the greens have changed colour."

Which explains why McDowell opted for the Shell Houston Open last week rather than a scouting visit to Augusta National. "I've discovered over the last few years that those trips a week or two weeks in advance of the Masters are no use at all, especially where putting is concerned," he said. "And let's face it, that's a key part of the Masters challenge."

The 2010 US Open champion went on to acknowledge that the Masters is the Major he least fancies his chances in, mainly because he doesn't draw the ball hard enough off the tee. But he added: "I still feel I'm learning something new about the nuances of the golf course every time I go back there. And I've decided it must be played aggressively. You can't play Augusta off the back foot. You've got to play green-light golf to good targets instead of playing amber- and red-light golf. You've got to take it on."

Of all the challengers over the years, nobody would agree more with this assessment than the hapless Greg Norman, who collapsed spectacularly in 1996 when attempting to defend a six-stroke 54-hole lead over Faldo.

McIlroy, too, is keenly conscious of having much to learn about this fabled venue, quite apart from the greens. Which explains his two-day visit there last week from his base in West Palm Beach. Another pre-Masters explorer, Phil Mickelson, is also easing menacingly into form. "My putting's been unbelievable," enthused the three-time winner. "I feel great with the blade and I feel like the rest of the short game is also there."

McIlroy and Woods dominated last year's Masters before Charl Schwartzel seemed to steal the title in early evening with a spectacular finish of four birdies from the 15th. Though his average drives of 288.5 yards were not always straight, he hit 49 out of 72 greens in regulation and needed only 107 putts for the 72 holes, averaging just under 27 putts per round.

McIlroy, meanwhile, came to serious grief at the 495-yard 10th, where his drive was pulled an estimated 60 yards off line. This precipitated a back-nine collapse, culminating in a dispiriting 80 and a share of 15th place. Woods, in the sixth-last pairing, had earlier electrified the final-day crowds with four birdies and a bogey in his first seven holes. Then came an eagle at the long eighth to move him within a stroke of McIlroy's lead, but the magic faded and with a level-par homeward journey containing only one birdie, he had to settle for tied fourth, even with a closing 67.

"Tiger Woods has been the face of golf for the last 15 years," McIlroy acknowledges. "So it's great to see him back. Great for the game. I'm looking forward to a lot of battles with him coming down the stretch, starting with Augusta."

Though cynics might suggest that the 22-year-old should be careful what he wishes for, his coach has no such fears. "Rory's really solid now and has reached a new level of consistency," said Michael Bannon, who joined his pupil in the US two weeks ago. "He is also much stronger physically, which should stand to him if he gets back into contention on Sunday."

Then there is the fact that, unlike last year, his parents Gerry and Rosie will be there to offer crucial support which was such a factor in his US Open triumph at Congressional last June.

Meanwhile, talk of physical well-being brings to mind a reaction to Woods' stunning 12-stroke Masters win of 1997, when it was only through mis-hitting a two-iron tee-shot at the 10th on the Sunday that he found it necessary to use more than a seven-iron approach at any of the par fours. That was a five-iron.

This prompted Steve Nesbitt, a US professor of mechanical engineering, to question if the 21-year-old might be over-stressing his body with 350-yard drives. "The golfer's body is an area where very little attention has been paid," said Nesbitt at the time. "We now propose to look inside the golfer to see where the power comes from and why golfers sometimes injure themselves, and what constitutes a good swing."

With shin fractures, Achilles tendon problems and four operations on his left knee, Woods effectively delivered his own answers to those questions. Yet en route to victory last Sunday, he looked a lot like the indomitable Tiger of old. Statistically, he is driving the ball better (average of 298.1 yards with 67.94 per cent accuracy) than at any time since his stand-out season of 2000, when nine wins included three successive Majors.

His putting at Bay Hill was also impressive, even if lacking the conviction of his imperious best. Either way, he owes his coach Sean Foley a debt of gratitude for noticing that tentative recent strokes with the blade stemmed from having his shoulders about 10 degrees open at address. When he stood square, putts suddenly began to drop.

Now he is thinking only about another green jacket, rather than the bigger picture of Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 Majors. Yet he couldn't resist adding: "There's four of them (Majors) this year and hopefully I can peak at the right times for all four of them."

Back in 1997, as the first black player to compete in the Masters, Lee Elder was specially invited to witness Woods' extraordinary victory march. To be there for the climactic moments, however, he had to make an 85mph dash from Columbia, South Carolina and was pulled over by a state trooper.

"What's the rush," Elder was asked.

"I'm heading for Augusta National to watch Tiger Woods win the Masters."

"Who's Tiger Woods," asked the golfing philistine, while writing a traffic ticket.

With his sights set on recapturing former glory, recognition has long since ceased to be an issue for Woods. But the remarkable young Irishman standing in his way this week, could present a far more tangible problem.

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