Tiger Woods: the elephant in everyone's Masters room
No Masters has ever been so dominated by one player, writes Dermot Gilleece
While we're attempting to absorb the horrendous implications of our banking collapse, the well-publicised indiscretions of Tiger Woods will seem like little more than mildly interesting peccadillos.
Still, the remainder of the golfing universe will be focused intently on Augusta National tomorrow, when the world's wayward number one takes a crucial step in his comeback to tournament action in the US Masters, starting on Thursday.
The much-trumpeted 'Tiger Interview' is scheduled for 2.0pm local time. And even assuming that the media are granted far greater latitude by the presiding Augusta official than they've managed so far, the chances are that it will remain a largely controlled exercise and not notably revealing.
Yet no Masters has ever been so dominated by one player, not even in 1975 when, ironically, Lee Elder became the first black golfer to compete for the green jacket. As a consequence, pre-tournament talk is less about the merits of various challengers than whether Woods can overcome the considerable handicap of being out of competition since winning the Australian Masters last November.
It should help Pádraig Harrington to have the sort of quiet, focused build-up he covets, in the company of fellow Irishmen Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, both of whom claimed top-20 places last year. But Ernie Els should still command considerable attention, having set the US Tour's best stroke-average of 68.88 this year, after successive victories at Doral and Bay Hill in recent weeks.
Though twice runner-up in 16 Masters appearances, Els has much to prove at Augusta. Granted, his putter is now far more productive than in a run of missed cuts over the last three years. But the fact remains that despite his elevated status in the game, the South African has never actually led the Masters, not even before the crucible of the final nine on Sunday afternoon.
Compatriot Ricci Roberts was on the bag for those recent wins, but he is surprisingly absent this week. Els has gone instead for former American hockey professional, Dan Quinn, who plays a useful golf game off plus-one and has shared duties with Roberts from time to time. "I don't think anybody can tell me anything more about Augusta than I already know," said Els, almost dismissively.
Though missing the cut at Houston clearly wasn't part of the plan, McIlroy has been attempting to re-create last year's mood by having his coach Michael Bannon over with him. And the Holywood star actually spent three days playing Augusta National with long-time pals, Harry Diamond and Stephen Sweeney, savouring the new $12m practice area before heading further south for this weekend's Shell Houston Open.
Bannon, who has been looking after McIlroy since his primary school days, is somewhat surprised with recent concerns about his back. "The first I heard Rory talk about back problems was prior to the Walker Cup (2007)," he told me from Houston.
Were there any plans to get the 20-year-old to swing easier, so as to limit the possibility of pain? "If anything, our focus is on getting him to swing maybe slightly better," he replied pointedly. "He's trying to improve the swing all the time and as a young fellow, he naturally wants to hit the ball hard, which is his decision. No matter what we do, he's not going to lose power.
"Recent results knocked his confidence a bit. When a guy who's on top of the world shoots a couple of bad scores, he doesn't feel the best about it. But he'll be back. I'm here just to keep an eye on his basics; make sure he's lined up properly and that the ball's going where it should go. And that he's happy and not having too many swing thoughts."
What about putting? "I watch over him and see what he's doing, but Paul Hurrion (Harrington's putting coach) takes care of that part of his game. Paul looks after his mechanics and I'm concerned more with course management and watching his rhythm and stuff."
The only course changes observed by McIlroy from last year were to the second green where they've widened the opening by "about 10 feet," and to some teeing areas which have been extended forwards so as to achieve "a bit more variation." He concluded: "They haven't done anything major."
Meanwhile, players are increasingly forthcoming about their recent involvement with Woods, now that he is returning to the golfing fold. Ben Curtis, the 2003 Open champion, has been talking about practice they did together. "We work on the same things but Tiger just does it better than I do," he said self-depracatingly.
Then there are hard-nosed observers not especially impressed by Woods' attempt at winning the Masters as his first tournament of the golfing year, just as Ben Hogan did in 1951 and 1953. "I don't think Tiger coming back after a knee injury or after 16 bimbos and a lot of embarrassment in the press is comparable to what Ben Hogan had to do," said veteran scribe Dan Jenkins. "I don't see how anything is the same."
Harrington chose more diplomatic words. "There will still be a lot of issues for Tiger, even after the Masters," he said. "Who knows, he could end up being a more balanced individual, more comfortable with who he is. If you're sneaking around doing things as he did, it's not going to help your mental focus and who you are on the golf course. So I think in the long term, it may give him a better attitude and better balance out there, which in turn, could make him a better player."
Arnold Palmer asserted recently that Woods should "open up and just let you guys in the media ask him questions . . . that would be the best way of moving on."
Did Harrington agree? "I believe Arnold is correct, but I think it will take time for it to happen. It is probably right though, that the matter won't be truly over until a huge amount of those questions are cleared up. Some of them will never be answered, however, because some of them are nobody's business. Which means there will always be speculation, innuendo, gossip. He has to accept that. It's part of being a superstar.
"But I'm just as worried about Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els playing well. There are guys out there who are as good as Tiger when they're on form. On the other hand, if I bring my form to an event, the guys I put on a pedestal, rightly or wrongly, have to play to their ability to beat me.
"At the end of the day, I don't know the answer as to how Tiger is feeling. I can only look on and learn from it. I can only control myself. Do I see it as an opportunity? If I can deal with myself and have confidence that there's more in the tank, I don't necessarily have to worry about the opposition, including Tiger."
Harrington's problems in the 2007 Open on the 18th at Carnoustie had much to do with bad memories of going out of bounds there during the British Amateur in 1992. It's something a top player has to deal with. Even Nicklaus complained of quirky Royal St George's as a links where "you can drive the ball down the middle of the fairway and lose it."
At Augusta, Harrington acknowledges there's baggage from the long second, where he took an eight last year, though he had previously carded 17 birdies there. But when he talks frankly about the long 13th as holding the prospect of a birdie or a double-bogey, depending on how well the drive is struck, he does so against the comforting background of two eagles there last year.
The long 15th, one suspects, remains a real worry, for the simple reason that he always looks uncomfortable there. As it happens, he is adopting a different strategy this year by aiming his pitch for the opposite side of the green from where his second shot lands, if he decides to lay up.
Harrington pinpointed a share of seventh place at Augusta in 2007 as a crucial step on his journey towards becoming a major champion, which he accomplished at Carnoustie three months later. As he put it: "I got the feeling that if I could do it at Augusta, which consistently asks the most pressurised questions all the way, I could do it anywhere."
Ten years on from his debut there, he also knows it might have been fashioned with his amazing short-game skills in mind, while offering precious latitude for his less-than-precise driving.
The chance of a breakthrough on this occasion is helped enormously, in my view, by Woods' problems. And I believe he will be telling himself as much, in quiet moments over the coming days at a place he loves so well.