Woods has Major momentum for Augusta with three wins on US Tour this season
Irish trio of McIlroy, Harrington and McDowell have reason to be confident
One fact is indisputable as we come into this 77th edition of the US Masters. Indeed, the signs are so crystal clear that even Angel, the palm reader who touts for business on Washington Road a mere pitching wedge distance from the gates of Augusta National Golf Club, wouldn’t require any psychic assistance: Tiger Woods, yet again, is the player in form.
The evidence is compelling. Woods has won three times on the US Tour already this season, tops the money list and is back as world number one.
So far this year, Woods has accumulated 194 world ranking points – the next best haul is by Brandt Snedeker, who has won 117 – and, clearly, coming here on the back of wins in the WGC-Cadillac and Bay Hill Invitational, he has winning momentum.
So, you’d imagine that this Masters, the first Major of the year, would be an open and shut case in favour of Woods. But it isn’t, not by a long shot.
For sure, Woods – with his remodelled swing under the tutelage of Sean Foley – is swinging sweetly, without pain now that he is in the whole of his health, and winning. Yet, Woods has also journeyed into unknown territory in that it is almost five full years since he claimed his 14th and last Major title and that winless stretch brings a pressure of its own.
Mi litating factors
There are other militating factors, too. It is eight years since he won his fourth green jacket - in 2005 – and the courses changes, initiated in 2002 and termed Tiger-proofing, have seemed to suit others, most notably Phil Mickelson, rather than Woods.
Not that Woods would admit to feeling such pressure. “No, still the same,” he responded, when asked if he felt more pressure as his Major drought has lengthened. “They are our four biggest events, (with) the toughest conditions, best fields and the most demanding and challenging.”
Unquestionably, though, Woods’s return to form this season has – as he has done throughout his career – raised the bar for others, among them Rory McIlroy.
Although the form the Ulsterman produced after his US PGA victory at Kiawah Island was irresistible, when he reeled off a succession of wins on the US Tour after claiming his second career Major, this season has been a different story.
Still, McIlroy’s runner-up finish in the Texas Open last week provided some evidence that his game has turned a corner. “I got a lot out of last week and am bringing a nice bit of confidence here,” he said, adding:
“I’ve went through patches before where I haven’t played so well and the game feels quite far away and then something clicks and then all of a sudden it’s back again.”
The next four days will provide the answer.
However, much of McIlroy’s early-season woes on the course were caused by an errant driver – what he calls an “adjustment period” in getting accustomed to his new clubs – and this course carries a heavy penalty for any waywardness off the tee. McIlroy believes that aspect of his game has improved. “The way I was hitting the ball at the start of the year, I needed a short game just to get myself around the golf course . . . (recently) off the tee has been a big improvement.”
Interestingly, McIlroy has revealed he will adopt a different course strategy for this, his fifth appearance in the Masters. Tellingly, it involves a more conservative approach off the tees to find the “fat” parts of the fairways. “I’m confident with my iron play, so there’s no point in taking on too much off the tee,” he explained.
McIlroy comes into this first Major of the season as the man who last savoured success in any Major, following his win in the US PGA last August. But the Irish hand, so to speak, is a strong one, with his fellow-Major winners Graeme McDowell and Pádraig Harrington, as ever, in positive mode heading into this examination.
“I love it,” said Harrington. “I am pretty good here. I like the golf course. I feel good. I think it is easier (playing) at Majors. There’s only three guys at the moment playing the game (Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els) who have won more, that means the rest of the field are chasing me this week. I am under no stress, which is nice. There are a lot of guys out there who are great players and fine players who would love to win three Majors.
“As I said, I have already done it and I can add to that total, which is very nice . . . and I’ve achieved enough Majors that it far surpasses anything I would have expected or dreamed off when I was a kid and to have the possibility to win more, which is a fantastic place to be and would be the envy of most players.”
Harrington, remember, got into Major contention as recently as last year’s US Open at the Olympic Club (where he finished fourth behind Webb Simpson). And, for his part, McDowell has contended in last year’s US Open (second) and British Open (fifth) and, significantly, has played well so far this season with top 10s in three of his last four outings on tour.
“I do think I can win here,” said McDowell, adding: “I probably never would have said that before but I feel like the tools are getting there and I just need to get off to a nice patient start. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from my visits here. I believe I’m getting closer to having a chance to wear a 40-short or whatever (size) I am in these days in a green jacket.”
For sure, the three Irishmen are contenders. They – with Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Brandt Snedeker, Matt Kuchar, Justin Rose et al – are strong reasons why it is no done deal for Woods.