Harrington in right frame of Masters mind
TIGER WOODS faces a moment of truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth on the first tee at Augusta National today.
Three days of smooth-talking, hugs and heartfelt promises will come to a full stop and Tiger's rehabilitation as a golfer will begin in earnest when he strikes his first shot at The Masters.
All week, Tiger's played for hearts and minds and the opportunity to redeem his shattered reputation in a charm offensive as transparent as the spotless clubhouse windows.
He talked the talk in the media centre and walked the walk on the golf course in practice, the scowling Tiger of old replaced by an affable chap who acknowledged every good wish from the galleries.
Yet window-dressing inevitably will end today. There's absolutely no hiding place at Augusta, when the course is honed and shaved for the hardest, fastest action in Major Championship golf. And after a searing hot week in Georgia, this year's tournament might approach the surreal.
Today might mark Tiger's 16th appearance at the Masters but one suspects the four-times champion will be more nervous hitting his first shot than the rawest rookie in the field, Matteo Manassero of Italy, at 16 the youngest ever to play the event.
Almost to a man, Tiger's professional colleagues refuse to write off his chances of contending this weekend, with Phil Mickelson the most strident. "Well that's a crazy question to ask, can he win," Mickelson replied when asked about Woods' chances. "He showed us he can win in much worse condition in the 2008 US Open.
"I played with him the first couple of rounds and he was not physically at his best, obviously, and his game was not the sharpest and yet he still won. Yet he finds a way to get it done."
If money talks, however, it says differently. Rated at 2/1 to win the Masters when he announced last month his self-imposed exile would come to an end at Augusta, Tiger's reputation (and little else) ensures he's still the pre-tournament favourite with the bookies, though his odds have eased considerably to 5/1 as punters look to more realistic options.
The odds against Tiger missing the cut for the first time at The Masters have shortened from 8/1 several weeks back to 9/2 in some quarters now. The market thinks he's more likely to have the weekend off than don the Green Jacket for a fifth time and, having watched Woods hit his golf ball all over Augusta in practice, it's hard to disagree.
Tiger's desperate efforts to whip his game back into reasonable shape during an unprecedented and exhausting 54 holes of practice in four days stridently shouts down the admirably loyal exhortations of his colleagues.
With a couple of tournaments under his belt and the rust knocked off his short game after nearly five months out of competition, Tiger probably will boost his haul of Major titles to 16 at Pebble Beach and St Andrews this summer, but he hasn't a snowball's chance in hell this week.
So who can win the 74th US Masters?
For me, there's two outstanding candidates: Padraig Harrington and Ernie Els, with the nod going to the Dubliner. Five others who should not be ignored are: Retief Goosen, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Paul Casey and Steve Stricker.
And two two-time winner Mickelson and defending champion Angel Cabrera, have all the necessary credentials but not the current form.
Els (40) is an obvious choice, following successive victories at the WGC-CA Championship and Arnold Palmer's Invitational at Bay Hill.
The South African had reason to be grateful, though, for the timely intervention of Mother Nature on Sunday afternoon at Bay Hill after a double-bogey and a bogey midway through the back nine left him reeling.
The immensely popular South African certainly finished the job the following day and few would begrudge him a Green Jacket after his runner-up spot to Vijay Singh at Augusta in 2000 and his heart-breaking eclipse in 2004 when Mickelson's memorable downhill birdie putt on the final hole denied Els the chance of sudden death after an inspired final round 67.
Els has endured so much pain in golf's toughest arena since the most recent of his victories at the British Open at Muirfield in 2002, and a question mark hangs over his ability to seal the deal here.
Harrington might not have won on Tour since completing famous back-to-back victories at the British Open and US PGA at Oakland Hills in August 2008 but he's stronger mentally than Els.
If the Dubliner gets himself into contention on the final nine holes on Sunday and he fixes those famous scary eyes on the Green Jacket, nobody will stop him. If the first six months and three Majors of last season were a complete write-off for Harrington as he became fixated on a swing change, he's infinitely more competitive now.
His play might have been a touch ragged at the weekend after forcing himself into contention on Friday at Transitions and Houston but rarely have I seen Harrington as composed, confident about his technique and clear-minded as he has been at Augusta this week, with just one little caveat.
It was intriguing to see Harrington using a spirit level on Augusta's putting surfaces during his practice round on Tuesday, which suggests he doesn't completely trust his ability to read the greens.
But the Irishman remains an accomplished putter; possesses an unrivalled short game; is an astute strategist and has the patience to overcome the setbacks which inevitably crop up over 72 holes at Augusta National.
As in 2007, when an outstanding chance of victory was scuppered on 15 after "a nice shot straight down the pin" pitched on the front of the greens and sucked back into the water, turning potential eagle into a bogey, it all might come down to how well he plays this and Augusta's other par fives this week.
If Harrington had matched the performance of Mickelson on Augusta's par fives in 2006 (he played them in three-over and the American in 13-under) or Zach Johnson the following year (the Irishman was two-under against 11-under by Johnson) he'd have beaten both by five strokes.
Harrington has changed utterly since 2007. He left Augusta National that Sunday evening convinced he could win Major titles and, having proved it three months later at Carnoustie, has grown into one of the most formidable finishers at golf's Majors.
His performance on the par fives improved correspondingly -- Harrington was eight-under for these 16 holes in 2008. One should discount last year's figures (when Cabrera outscored him by six on the par-fives) because the Irishman's swing was in such a parlous state, he even made an appalling quadruple bogey nine at Augusta's second hole on Saturday morning.
Jack Nicklaus summed up the Majors nicely when he said recently: "I found them by far the easiest tournaments to win.
"They were so prestigious and difficult in the head, 90pc of the players in the field didn't believe they could win -- so if you believe you can do it, you're almost halfway home."
Harrington, Goosen, Els, Cabrera and Mickelson fit that bill, though the latter's form this year understandably has been inconsistent as he joined another far more important battle, his wife Amy's ongoing bid to overcome breast cancer.
If fully recovered from the shoulder injury which scuppered his defence of the Shell Houston Open title last week, Casey is England's strongest card. While Poulter's exemplary putting should stand to him, Westwood's short game might not be sharp enough for Augusta.
In the end, when it comes to belief, nobody is better equipped for the Augusta challenge than Harrington.
Winner: Padraig Harrington
Each-way bet: Ian Poulter
Dark horse: Charl Schwartzel
Live, BBC2 9.0, Setanta Ireland 10.0