Thought for the Day
I’m not a pedant, I’m just excessively sesquipedalian
In golf this week there is really only one question – are you brave enough to bet against Tiger Woods in the Masters? Considering that he hasn’t even played in it for three years, and that 10 months ago he was found slumped over the wheel of his car, barely coherent and then found to be unable to pass a simple sobriety test, it seems a heck of a stretch to imagine him being clothed in a green jacket for the fifth time. The car incident, of course, was the result of the analgesia he was taking to suppress the continuous pain he felt from his back but the spinal fusion he underwent, and a spell in a rehab clinic, has left him drug and pain free, and generating more clubhead speed than any of his contemporaries.
I still think that victory this week is unlikely though – partly because he is still at a relatively early stage of comeback, partly because he hasn’t been in position to win a major for nearly 10 years and also because the competition looks extraordinarily strong. Then again, this is Tiger, one of the most remarkable sporting athletes of his or any other generation. And superstars become such because they do astonishing things. If we have learnt anything from watching this man play golf in more than two decades, it is to expect the unexpected, and then some.
But it is not surprising that, although his fellow golf pros seem genuinely pleased to see him competing again, and remain aware of his ability, they are no longer intimidated. A big part of Tiger’s early career dominance was that he, and they, believed that he would find a way to score whatever was needed to win but that aura of invincibility has considerably diminished. The other factor he needs to contend with is that, like all great performers who raise the bar of what can be achieved, he dragged others along in his wake and many of them are now capable of the sort of golf which he alone could execute – albeit not with the same consistency.
A serious number of very good golfers are hitting peak condition at just the right time for the season’s first major. Justin Rose is in the form of his life. Going into last week’s Houston Open he had 13 top-10 finishes, including three wins, in his previous 15 events, a staggering run of consistency that sees him ranked number five in the world. Beware, also the runner-up. In recent years Adam Scott, Bubba Watson and Jordan Spieth have all won at Augusta the year after finishing second, which of course, Rose did in 2017.
Speaking of Bubba, he has looked increasingly strong in recent weeks, having regained his mojo. Last year he was depressed, in poor health and considering abandoning the game he loved but on song his is a game that is perfectly matched to this Georgia layout. His tremendous length from the tee and natural fade are perfect for a course that smiles on left-handers who hit the ball from right-to-left. Too many people, though, see only the distance he hits the ball and ignore his tremendous touch on and around the greens.
But even his short game wizadry cannot match that of Phil Mickelson, who is also looking in tremendous nick, although at the age of 47 he would become the oldest winner of a green jacket, beating Jack Nicklaus by a year. Time is running out for Phil, and he knows it, so motivation will not be a problem.
Rory McIlroy won on his last strokeplay outing, three weeks ago, and his decision to play more early-season events leading up to the Masters looks to be reaping dividends. And this is the major he craves above all others, needing it to complete his career grand slam. Jordan Spieth, who has form around this course, is getting better every week and although he’s still suspect on the four to six foot putts, at Augusta National it’s lag-putting that really counts and he is the best of the lot at distance control on the greens. Of the other young guns, Justin Thomas has gone off the boil a shade in recent weeks but he is so consistently good that even a bad week sees him up among the leaders.
Paul Casey is having a resurgence and plays Augusta particularly well. Despite his tremendous victory at the weekend I can’t see Ian Poulter matching it; he put so much into that must-win effort in Houston that I don’t believe even he can keep the competitive juices flowing as strongly again. Sadly, Rickie Fowler has once again demonstrated that, fabulous as he can be on Thursday and Friday, come the weekend some part of him goes into meltdown and he routinely falls off the top of the leaderboard when the men with the trophy come to call. The one surprise among the big beasts of the game has been the lacklustre showings of Dustin Johnston, and Augusta is not a place to find your game.
Yet despite all these strong contenders, all eyes will be on Tiger, which is the only unhappy element of the tournament. Because he boosts TV ratings like no other, the host TV broadcaster will show us pictures of Tiger playing golf to the near exclusion of everyone else. Not only that. We’ll see Tiger walking, thinking, standing and studying his putts from every angle, while all him around golf will be played. Oh well.
Quote of the Week
I always felt that if I didn’t play well at the Masters I wouldn’t go to heaven