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He once was king but now Woods is at his weakest

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Tiger Woods blasts out of a bunker on the 8th hole during his third round at Augusta yesterday. Photo: Jamie Squire

Tiger Woods blasts out of a bunker on the 8th hole during his third round at Augusta yesterday. Photo: Jamie Squire

Tiger Woods blasts out of a bunker on the 8th hole during his third round at Augusta yesterday. Photo: Jamie Squire

A few feet from where Tiger Woods hoofed his nine-iron 10 yards and cursed "God damn it!" on the 16th tee on Friday night is a plaque commemorating the great Masters career of Jack Nicklaus. The self-lacerating Woods was wise not to read the inscription.



Let's start with 1963. At 23, Nicklaus wins his first green jacket to become the youngest champion up to that point. Two years later he posts tournament records for scoring (271) and margin of victory (nine). It was then that Bobby Jones said: "Jack is playing an entirely different game -- a game with which I'm not familiar."

A year later Nicklaus won a three-way play-off with Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller to become the first Masters winner to defend his title; and in 1975 sank a 40-foot birdie putt at the 16th to collect his fifth emerald blazer.

Better yet, at 46 years old, in 1986, he went eagle, birdie, birdie at 15, 16 and 17 to card a final-round 65 and win his sixth crown.

Close to the water fountain where the plaque can be found, on Friday evening, Woods hit a spectator beside the 15th green, shook the victim's hand, then fluffed his chip into the bunker before saving par and marching over to the 16th tee, where the world observed the biggest of his tantrums on a hellish day in paradise.

With a nine-iron Woods sent his lofted shot into a greenside bunker, turned and booted the club along the grass. "Tiger's lost his game and his mind," chided Nick Faldo later in a television commentary booth. There were reports of "profanities" throughout the round. In an unusually candid interview Woods talked about the mess his swing was in and stomped off to the practice range, where he was seen swiping away at balls in the dark.

These dramatic snapshots of the torment Woods is enduring on his previously inexorable march to Nicklaus' record of 18 Major titles prompted speculation that he could face official sanction for club-abuse and swearing.

The respected Associated Press reporter Tim Dahlberg called him "an embarrassment to his sport" and fulminated: "If [chairman] Billy Payne was as serious about keeping club decorum intact as he is about keeping women members out of Augusta National, he would do well to take it upon himself to show Woods the door."

When dear old AP savage such an iconic figure (in sporting terms, at least), you can see the demons swarm around his quest to eclipse Nicklaus, who must be more confident than ever that his 18 majors will remain unsurpassed.

Two weeks ago, Woods won the Arnold Palmer Invitational by five shots and appeared comfortable with his new post-Hank Haney action. To the four-time Masters champion, now 36, a golf swing is an infinitely complex arrangement of moves and thoughts. If there is one word to describe his agonising after his three-over-par 147 for his first two rounds it is probably 'neurotic'.

"I've been working on my short game, and it's been taking away from my full swing," he said. "It's not what it was at Bay Hill [in the Arnold Palmer] and prior tournaments. I have it in stretches. I get it in streaks where it's really good and then I lose it for a little bit. That's obviously very frustrating."

He has not won here since 2005 and no one was buying his claim on Friday night: "I can do this." Eight shots off the lead seemed an insurmountable deficit as he smacked his first drive yesterday straight down the middle at 3.45 Irish time.

With him was Charl Schwartzel, the defending champion. Woods is the only golfer to finish in the top 10 in each of the past seven Masters but he set off here tied for 40th place. A teeming gallery pursued him as he set off down the first.

In their thoughts, no doubt, was Faldo's evisceration: "He's one of the greatest players of all time and he hasn't a clue how to put the clubface on the ball right now," said England's three-time Masters champion. "He's had a few snap hooks with the driver, he's blocked a few iron shots, his distance control is lousy and he can't hole a putt.

"He used to have an amazing ability to make things happen. When he tries to make things happen now he puts himself under pressure and it doesn't happen.

"He's suddenly become like the rest of us which he wasn't -- he was paranormal. Suddenly he's affected by poor shots, he has a few demons on his shoulders, he struggles to find it on the golf course and he struggles to fix it on the golf course. He's running on sheer frustration right now.

"It's a different time in Tiger's life and in his career. There was the Tiger of old but over the last couple of years he's had change technically, physically and mentally -- the whole karma of his life."

"I've just got to stay patient with it and keep doing the reps, and eventually it'll become where it's second nature," Tiger said before striding down through the pines with noticeably fierce intent.

A measure of his aura is that no one ever really writes him off. Lurking, always, is the knowledge that he still has the capability to throw in a blasting round and spread fear again.

Are the old certainties recoverable? Were the Hank Haney years the golden time, now vanished never to return? Woods is trying to reconquer a changed world in which one victory at Bay Hill proved to be illusory when he tested his new set-up in the woods of Georgia.

The plaque near 16 reads: "Jack Nicklaus elevated his game to meet golf's challenges, including those at the Masters Tournament".

Woods seeks only to lift his game back to where it was -- up in the Gods. Telegraph

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