Sunday 21 July 2019

US Masters' biggest star back in limelight

Woods' return to form indicates he is ready to write another chapter in fascinating Augusta story

Sergio Garcia makes birdie on the 18th at Augusta last year. Photo: AP
Sergio Garcia makes birdie on the 18th at Augusta last year. Photo: AP

Dermot Gilleece

Augusta National has unmatched appeal, from the unstudied beauty of a course framed by flowers to the mystique packed into its relatively short existence. Still, we are about to witness serious embellishment of its almost fabled history through the reappearance of Tiger Woods in this week's US Masters, starting on Thursday.

There's a temptation to think of it as the prodigal's return, not least in view of a sometimes rocky relationship with the host club. From his last Masters appearance in 2015, however, Woods now commands far more positive appeal in the light of a remarkable comeback over the last few months.

There couldn't be a more appropriate setting to copper-fasten that revival while marking his majestic contribution to the Major championships. Back in the 19th century, more than 50 years before the great Bobby Jones was born, the owner of an indigo plantation could view from his secluded home, a shadowy canopy of white magnolia blossoms, stretching for 300 yards to the main road beyond.

Magnolia Lane would later become the most celebrated driveway in golf, capturing, as one American writer described it, all the tragedies there ever were in the Old South and all the tranquillity there ever would be. And Woods has claimed a unique place in golf's contribution to this rich tapestry.

Interestingly, this year's Masters field of 86 is the smallest since 1997, when he secured his first green jacket by the crushing margin of 12 strokes from Tom Kite. A final place remains to be filled later today by the winner of the Houston Open, unless he has already qualified. All four Irish challengers there - Paul Dunne, Shane Lowry, Seamus Power and Pádraig Harrington - made the cut, by which stage Dunne (tied 6th) was two strokes off the lead and Lowry (tied 11th) was a stroke further back.

On current form, however, it's asking a lot for either of them to go on and beat a quality field. So, the likely Augusta scenario is that Rory McIlroy will be the lone Irish representative, contrasting sharply with 2015, for instance, when he, Harrington, Lowry, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke formed a five-prong challenge. The last time we had a lone representative was in 2008, when Harrington flew the flag in a share of fifth place behind Trevor Immelman.

The Masters has become such a superbly-run event these days that it's hard to imagine it as a somewhat slap-dash affair during its embryonic years in the 1930s. That was when Charlie Yates, a long-time friend of Bobby Jones', was a regular, amateur competitor.

He once talked about the great Bobby's notoriously eccentric father being a member of the Masters rules committee. "This Colonel Jones was the darndest fella you ever saw," said Yates. "During one of the early Masters, he was asked to advise the players on the embedded ball rule, which of course, he knew nothing about.

"As luck would have it, a player approached him for help about a ball that was embedded in a hazard. 'What's your problem, son?' enquired the Colonel. When the youngster explained his predicament, the Colonel responded: 'Let me ask you, how do you stand son?'

"The lad replied: 'I'm seven-over for the day and 22-over for the tournament.' Whereupon the Colonel advised: 'Goddam it son, put the goddam ball on the green for all I care.'"

Augusta National had become a very different place when Woods returned there in 2010, in the wake of scandalous revelations regarding his off-course behaviour. For a start, entry to his Monday press conference was the first ticket-only affair in my experience of tournaments on either side of the Atlantic.

Two days later, it became the turn of Augusta chairman, Billy Payne, to express the club's views. Though some observers later saw him lecturing Woods with southern righteousness, I felt his objective was to publicly hurt the player for what was perceived as totally unacceptable behaviour for a Masters champion.

The use of the word egregious which, to be honest, I had never typed before, was clear evidence of their disapproval. The Oxford dictionary defines egregious as "shocking, remarkable". On the American side of the Atlantic, however, it is used to convey something extremely distasteful, even reprehensible.

Ironically, it could be argued that Augusta National were curiously kind to Woods three years later, when many observers thought him fortunate to escape disqualification. This was when only a two-stroke penalty was applied, even though he signed for an incorrect second-round score. He had dropped the ball in the wrong place when his approach to the 15th bounced off the flagstick and into water.

All of which gains fresh relevance through the publication last week of Tiger Woods by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, who, while acknowledging his impressive Las Vegas reputation of being an astute high-stakes gambler, have painted a fairly grim picture of the player's attitude towards women. Even more damning, are the book's sexual revelations regarding his father, Earl.

In the course of a Q and A with American magazine Golf Digest, the authors were asked if they thought Woods was happy today. And did they think he would win another Major. "We think this is the happiest Tiger has been in his life," they replied. "He has a girlfriend. He spends quality time with his kids. But most of all, he's finally living a life without constant, debilitating pain."

They went on: "In terms of whether he'll win another Major, we certainly hope so. And given what we've witnessed in the past few weeks, we think he has an excellent chance." They were then asked to describe Woods in one word. "It's hard to sum up Tiger in one word," they replied. "How about four? One of a kind."

I've chosen those quotes because I believe they offer the best insight into his prospects this week in his 21st Masters appearance, two of them as an amateur. And as a parent myself, I have always been hugely impressed by the respect and affection he displayed for his father, over the years.

I particularly remember a 2007 Masters interview, marking the 10th anniversary of his breakthrough victory and a year after his father's death. He recalled how, during Masters week in 1997, he had sought help from his father for erratic putting, similar to the assistance McIlroy received recently from Brad Faxon.

According to Woods: "I had been playing pretty well up until that point. I shot 59 at home. I also shot 63 and two 65s or something. I was having a really good preparation. I get there and I can't putt a lick. I had the worst speeds, the worst lines, I'm hitting it well, but I just cannot shake it in from anywhere. Wednesday night I go up to Dad and say, 'Pop, can you take a look at my stroke? It feels terrible.'"

That was when the father, who had attended the Masters against medical advice in the wake of a heart bypass, came to his son's rescue. "He tells me 'just go out there and do it'.", recalled Woods. Which was essentially Faxon's advice to McIlroy.

Further memories from that week were: "Saturday night with Dad, he and I were just sitting there, past midnight [in their rented house]. Both of us don't sleep very well and we were just rapping, talking. He said, 'You know what, just go to sleep. It's going to be the most important round of your life, but you can handle it. Just go out there and do what you do. Just get in your own little world and go out there and just thrash 'em.'

"So that was the mindset. When I hugged him on 18, looking back on it now, I could not have won that tournament without him."

Given his nine-stroke lead over Costantino Rocca after 54 holes, he admitted thinking of Greg Norman's collapse in similar circumstances the previous year. "Of course it crossed my mind," said Woods. "But Norman had [Nick] Faldo chasing him who knew how to win Major championships. If I just play the par-fives well and do what I do, nobody can catch me. I just kept saying, if I shoot under par, it's over. I didn't think anyone could shoot 62 and win."

Revived European fortunes in the Masters were maintained last year when Sergio Garcia succeeded England's Danny Willett as champion. And we wonder if Sweden can benefit from the "Harrington factor", with Henrik Stenson opening the door for Alex Noren as a Major champion, possibly next weekend. And there would be obvious appeal in Jon Rahm defending his Dubai Duty Free Irish Open title at Ballyliffin in July, as reigning Masters champion.

This would be to overlook the fact, however, that for the last seven years, McIlroy has been the European player everyone has looked to at Augusta National, simply because of his peerless skills. Bobby Jones maintained that strategy and skill were equal components in how the golf course should be played, so if the Holywood star can get his strategy right, a green jacket beckons.

Competitors will find no significant surprises to the layout this week. Plans are already in hand, however, to begin work on an extension to the par-four fifth, starting on May 1. In the meantime, notoriously slippery greens will remain the layout's greatest defence.

In the autumn of 1980, the courageous decision was taken to switch from ryegrass to bent greens. A priceless endorsement came in the 1981 two-stroke victory by Tom Watson on 280, ahead of Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller in a tie for second place.

Who can win this time around? Is America's Justin Thomas a genuine candidate?

As always at Augusta, victory will go to the player who finds comfort with the blade, where only torment is meant to exist. Just like Woods has done on four occasions.

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