The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Tiger poised for glittering master class
- Augusta masters l Green jacket may remain a dream for the likes of Els, Goosen

Tiger Woods is going for an unprecedented third consecutive Masters and it is unlikely that Augusta’s tailor will be sizing up the opposition too closely. The 30 players immediately below Woods in the world rankings have one green jacket between them. As Scott Hoch said: “Until somebody beats Tiger I’m not sure there’s any rivalry.”

Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Vijay Singh would like to start their Masters without the words Tiger and Woods performing their usual brain-salad surgery, and maybe they will. Maybe they will even get to Sunday afternoon without their brains starting to glow as red as a radish. But can any one of them avoid being part of the multiple-collapse that led to the final-round debacle of last year’s Masters'

The words of Jack Nicklaus do not bode well for them. He said recently: “It’s easier to win your third in a row than your first. The last two years, it has been Tiger’s cakewalk.” Maybe there are too many scars. Maybe it needs someone else, someone like Davis Love, to challenge Woods.

There are many reasons for Woods’ supremacy at Augusta. There is his relish of the four par-fives. There is the sparseness of rough or “second cut” as it is called by the 300 members of Augusta National. There are the dog-legs set up for his slinging hook. There is the sheer length of the course and the severity of the greens. There is the reinforcing fact that he keeps winning on the course. And there is the small matter that Woods is an extraordinary golfer.

He got quite miffed when Mickelson suggested that part of Woods’ extraordinariness is that he achieves despite playing with inferior equipment. Mickelson, under pressure from Tiger, subsequently back-tracked as if it were the final nine holes of a major.

Having extracted his apology, a week or so later Woods said: “I don’t take advantage of technology fully. Obviously I play with a short driver and a steel shaft and a shallow-face driver. So I’ve limited myself to what I can do.”

Woods also appears in an advertisement — and for those of you who like to take an egalitarian view of talent, I am afraid to say that he is remarkably good in these ads — where his talking tiger headcover accuses him of “dinking” it because he has not switched to the new Nike ball. The only conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that Mickelson was quite right in what he said, but has less right to say it than Tiger’s headcover. Now that really is aimed at giving someone an inferiority complex.

Not that Mickelson would be alone in this week’s field in having an inferiority complex. About the only competing players who do not suffer from “Woodsitis” are Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Did I say competing'

Last week the decision to withdraw lifetime exemptions into the Masters was revoked. Palmer, who made an emotional farewell last year, immediately announced that he would participate again. And Player said: “It is not like the past champions took spots off other deserving players or that they held up play.”

Player is only half-right. Last year Arnie was showboating in the trees for a good five minutes while Padraig Harrington looked on from the adjoining fairway. It takes some doing to hold up Harrington. Nick Faldo said last week that when Arnie passes away, they will probably attach wheels to his coffin and trundle him down the 18th with a putter sticking out of the box.

The original decision of Hootie Johnson, the chairman of Augusta National, to withdraw exemptions for those over the age of 65 was probably a good one. But he has now decided that he had made a mistake. Whatever the rights and wrongs it was certainly a better decision than calling in a public relations consultant when he received a letter from Martha Burk, the chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organisations, protesting at Augusta’s absence of lady members.

Instead of sending back an extremely short but polite reply — Burk herself said: “It was a private letter. I expected a private reply” — Johnson was advised to make a public statement. Who knows how much this PR chipmunk was paid for such a piece of boneheaded advice, but a few dried nuts would have been too much.

The result is that the American media were presented with a stick with which to beat themselves about the head and it has been raining down blows upon the swollen bones ever since. Even Mickelson does not take that much punishment.

The curious result of all these shenanigans is that we now have a Masters where Burk has been joined by an African-American motorcycle gang in her stance against Augusta National: where the wrinklies are returning for their 17th final appearance: and where only a talking headcover is allowed to stand up to Woods.

Under such circumstances the golf cannot start soon enough. There are many who would love to see Els, Mickelson or Love win a green jacket. And Els’ brilliant start to the season or Mickelson’s new-born son or Love’s recent victory at the Tournament Players Championship might just strengthen the chances of that happening.

But a couple of months ago Woods gave a telephone conference during which he said: “I think to have all four majors in a row is probably going to be a bigger feat than winning three straight Masters.”

The lack of a conditional clause in that statement is just a little bit scary.

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