Friday 23 March 2018

Watson can step up as Woods and Mickelson era fades

Lawrence Donegan at Augusta

The bookmakers' odds never lie, but on the eve of the 2011 Masters, the latest edition of the most pristine show in golf, never have they looked less convincing under the cold, harsh glare of a pre-Augusta morning.

Tiger Woods is, we are being asked to believe, a clear favourite to land his fifth green jacket. How quaint. How very 2005. The man has not won a major championship in almost three years. He has not even won a golf tournament in 17 months. It takes long and straight driving to win the Masters. It takes great ball-striking, a solid short game and a confident putting stroke to win the Masters.

Woods, currently embarked on a controversial swing overhaul under the tutelage of Sean Foley, has shown all these qualities in the past few months, but seldom at the same time. When he has found his form, it has never been for more than a few consecutive holes. A man needs his 'A' game to win around Augusta National.

Woods is currently scoring about a D. For dunce. But if the temptation is strong to laugh at the notion that the world No 5 has a 6/1 chance of landing his 15th major, it is perhaps wise not to chuckle too loudly. After all, we are talking about a man who won a US Open -- at Torrey Pines in 2008 -- with a broken leg; a man who arrived in Georgia last April as an post-modern media curiosity, as much infamous as famous, and not as a fully functioning competitive golfer. Yet he somehow finished fourth.

There is something in the Augusta air that stirs Woods' juices, pushing him to achieve the impossible -- the improbable runaway victory (1997), the irresistible march towards the Tiger Slam (2001), the outlandish chip-in on the 70th hole (2005) -- but the restorative effects of his annual pilgrimage must surely have their limits. Woods arrives this year with a clearly fractured mind and a golf swing that resembles nothing so much as a half-finished Meccano set. By all means, prepare for the biggest 'upset' victory by a favourite in the history of golf, but do not expect it to happen.

Nor should too much faith be placed in the fashionable notion that Augusta is now the personal fiefdom of Phil Mickelson. In the recent past, maybe, but the big left-hander, like Woods, has endured a mediocre golfing year, beset by injury and troubles away from the course (albeit of an altogether different order than the self-induced mayhem that ripped his rival's life apart). As ever, Mickelson is talking a good Masters game, but asking us to take him on trust, to judge him by his words and not by his most recent deeds.

Some people will bite. Who could blame them after Lefty's memorable victory here last year? Like Luke Skywalker in a custom-made polo shirt, it seemed he had the force with him 12 months ago, but he also had the confidence that came from a run of decent performances in the early part of the season.

This year, he has nothing to draw on but mediocrity and a nagging sense, at the age of 40, that time may have taken a vital edge off his game. If this proves so, and if Woods continues to wallow in the misery of his own making, the 2011 Masters may yet go down in history as the passing of the Woods-Mickelson era. The question then becomes; what will replace it?

The natural inclination is to search for another individual who will dominate in the manner of Woods -- and Jack Nicklaus before him. Sport is drawn to such heroic figures, especially in this day and age. They are easier to identify with, and easier to market. They offer clarity.

Golf's problem (or is it opportunity?) on the eve of the first major of 2011 is that, instead of clarity, it has parity, as is evidenced by a list of potential winners as long as any in recent major championship history.

The hopes of European fans will be carried by the likes of Martin Kaymer, the world No1, and Lee Westwood. Rory McIlroy seems to save his best for the big events, Paul Casey has a game that might have been designed with Augusta National in mind and Ian Poulter has never stepped on to the 1st tee of any course believing he is anything less than the winner-in-waiting. We could go on. Justin Rose, Luke Donald, Graeme McDowell - and what about Alvaro Quiros? But it would be impolite to ignore the host nation, as well as injurious to the cause of identifying next Sunday's winner.

For a while there, the big-hitting Dustin Johnson represented America's best hope in this major, and in many majors to come, but it seems he has become distracted by his life away from the course. Likewise, the talented Anthony Kim.

But despair not, Uncle Sam, there are plenty more where those two came from. Nick Watney has already won on the PGA Tour this year and, like Casey, plays a style of golf suited to Augusta. Matt Kuchar might not be flash, but he is consistent and he holes putts. A win by either man would surprise the broader public, but it would not excite them.

And at this precise moment, golf could do with an exciting winner; a player with charisma and a flash of style; a player who hits it miles and has a gossamer touch around the greens; a player who has already endeared himself to the golf public and who is ready to take the next step. In two words, the 2011 Masters needs a winner like Bubba Watson.


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