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Steve Williams points the way for Tiger (PA)

Augusta should crave return of Tiger’s prowl

Miles Evans @milominder

For all its mystique, the sensorial overload of Augusta’s flora and fauna, the groaning weight of tradition, there’s something amiss with the US Masters.

A bit like turning up to your favourite West End show only to be told the plucky understudy has been called up to the lead role at the 11th hour, it leaves you essentially fulfilled but is missing that certain something which elevates it to the extraordinary.

Such is the Masters when Tiger Woods is not ruling the Augusta roost. The tournament has the feel of a boycotted Olympics if he fails to challenge.

Woods once bestrode the pristine Augusta greens like a colossus, a unique talent whose single-handed transformation of the game was never more clearly demonstrated than when he stormed to his four green jackets.

As fellow pro Jesper Parnevik said after Woods’ breakthrough triumph in 1997: “Unless they build Tiger tees about 50 yards back, he’s going to win the next 20 of these.”

There was no more prescient example of his talent, his apparently endless marketability and appeal than at the par-three 16th hole in the final round in 2005.

Having seen a three-shot lead whittled down to just one, Woods stood behind the green, his ball nestling against the second cut of rough, facing the trickiest of chips on to the sheet-glass putting surface.

He prowled the green, like some dead-eyed automaton, assessing every undulation and contour that might influence the trajectory of his ball.

He chipped it to the top of the bank on the far side of the green, and the crowd and watching millions gasped in awe as the ball elegantly trickled 25 feet back down the slope, pausing momentarily at the hole side, the Nike logo obligingly on show as it paused on the lip before finally succumbing to gravity and falling into the welcoming cup. Pandemonium.

“Oh wow! In your life have you seen anything like that?” bellowed one the commentator over the crowd’s roar.

Not since Gene Sarazen’s ‘shot heard round the world’ – the 235-yard four-wood he holed for an albatross at the par-five 15th in the final round of the 1935 Masters – had a single golf stroke attained such iconic status.

Only time seemed to stand between Woods and Jack Nicklaus’s storied mark of 18 majors, but once it emerged his desire to win golf tournaments was eclipsed only by his penchant for waitress-chasing, the dynasty started inevitably to crumble. And crumble it did in the most bemusing and public manner. Endorsements dried up as fast as his popularity waned.

The adage that you never truly appreciate things until they are gone, though, applies to Woods perhaps more than any sportsman of recent generations.

Our marvelling at his sublime skills turned to frustration at the lack of genuine competition from the rest of the pack, and then disintegrated into wide-eyed sentiment as Woods’ on-course presence ebbed amid a whirlwind of tawdry revelations about his life after the 18th green.

This is the man who won the US Open with a broken bone his leg in 2008, the man who was almost impossible to catch once he got his nose in front, the man who had 14 majors under his belt before his 33rd birthday.

“I don’t get to play by different rules. The same boundaries that apply to everyone apply to me. I brought this shame on myself,” he said in a televised statement of apology and a rare moment of genuine contrition since his antics were made public.

And the emergence of mortality has not been kind to Woods.

If anything, he is yet more introspective than before his personal life imploded. His enforced sabbatical was supposed to give him the opportunity to put the real Tiger on show, to empathise with the galleries, to connect with his millions of fans.

Any public questioning of the impact of his private life on his game elicits only scorn.

Why doesn’t Woods find the time he needs to tweak his swing to the metronomic beauty of old?

“Well, because I have a family. I’m divorced. If you’ve been divorced with kids, then you would understand,” Woods snapped back at reporters recently.

European golfers have been the principal benefactors of Woods’ mental and physical fragility. Deprived of Woods’ compelling presence, the PGA Tour seems to celebrate new winners every week at the moment; Jhonattan Vegas, Mark Wilson (twice), Michael Bradley, and Johnson Wagner all tasting the winner’s champagne in 2011.

Less an array of Who’s Who and but more a case of Who?

The US malaise in the majors has also been pounced on by Europe, with Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell snaring the Continent’s first US Open title since Tony Jacklin 40 years earlier, and Germany’s Martin Kaymer picking off the USPGA.

Currently, the world’s top four golfers are currently European, with Woods fifth. Yet the Masters remains the ultimate venue to prove golfing worth.

Despite being a sporting newcomer when compared with the Open Championship, Wimbledon, or the English horse racing classics, no event is coated in as much thick sentiment as the Masters.

We all have our own very personal memories of Augusta: Sandy Lyle’s perspiring armpits held skywards as he celebrated the putt that won him the title in 1988; Nick Faldo’s ruthless pursuit of Greg Norman in meltdown in 1996; Phil Mickelson’s miracle escape from the trees to find the green at the par-five 13th last year.

Yet any tournament victory when Woods is not challenging seems devalued. Each needs an asterisk beside it with *Woods not at his best, written at the foot of the list.

His downfall leaves the smallest of stains on everyone else’s triumphs. Only a handful of players can lay claim to have won majors when Woods was at his absolute blood-pumping best and golf seemed so much more vibrant because of it.

So, Magnolia Drive will be at its clipped best next week, the Augusta greens will resemble the perfection of an Xbox golf game and an array of differently sized green jackets will be at hand in the Butler Cabin.

A beaming Woods seems unlikely to be receiving sport’s most famed garment from Mickelson on Sunday evening, and he and the rest of the golfing world will be the worse for it.

Miles is Chief Editor at Perform and a veteran of the Reuters, Bloomberg, Sports.com, and Teletext newsdesks

One Response to “US Masters”

  1. You weren’t wrong. Two rounds in my friend and the Tiger looks dangerous. Top, top read.

    Reply

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