Woods heads cast of usual suspects

 

GOLF/The Masters: On A bulletin board outside the Baptist church on Washington Road, opposite the entrance to Magnolia Drive, there is a message that reads: "The real Master will return one day."

Where that leaves Tiger Woods is open to question, but for those caught up in the bottleneck traffic jams, slowly manoeuvring a way into Augusta National with precious tickets pinned to their shirts for this 66th US Masters, there is a belief - if not of divine status - that the "Master", in the human form, is already back.

If anything, the 285 additional yards which have been added to the course's length should aid rather than hinder Woods's quest to become the first player since Nick Faldo in 1990 to successfully defend this first major of the year. The course has been bulked up to 7,270 yards - allied with some strategic transplanting of trees and enlarging of bunkers - and the result is that some players, like David Duval, have taken to carrying a seven-wood in their bag to assist with higher ball flight from longer distances in to greens that, despite yesterday's rainfall, remain firm and fast.

Such measures may seem a little extreme, but the fact is that the challenge for all 89 players in the field is an intimidating one.

"It's not that you have to be more creative with your long-iron approach shots," remarked Paul McGinley, "it is just there is no other way to play them. An example is the approach in to nine. You're on a downslope with a four or five iron in your hand playing to an elevated green. There is nothing creative about that, there's only one way to play it."

Nobody, not even Woods, underestimates how tough the task will be over the august terrain. As ever, everything is pristine; the changes made are seamless, almost as if it has always been so. The fairways have been mowed to 3/8 inch, the collars at ¼ inch and the greens at 1/8 inch. Getting to the greens has never been more difficult and, once on them, getting the ball into the hole has never been harder. As such, it is unlikely the record low score of 18-under-par 270 - set by Woods in 1997 - will be beaten, or even threatened.

A year ago, when Hootie Johnson, the chairman of Augusta National, first told of plans to make alterations to the course, the scale of the proposed changes raised some eyebrows. Things tend to get done quite slowly in the deep South. On this occasion, the speed was more surprising than the fact that the work was actually carried out.

Yesterday, Johnson returned, and to murmuring that they had created the perfect course, he chose to use the words of a predecessor Clifford Roberts who, when told by a lady he had "a perfect tournament", replied: "Thank you very much, but we really never get it right." Johnson added: "and that may be true with the golf course."

For the first time in the history of the championship, there are four Irish players - McGinley and British amateur champion Michael Hoey, who are making their debuts, and Darren Clarke and Padraig Harrington - in the field, which equals the numbers for Spain, South Africa and Australia, who have the most representatives outside of the United States.

The rain, which has helped take a little of the sting out of the greens, was welcomed by each of the Irish quartet, although the tournament committee expects them to be just as fast by the weekend as they were earlier in the week.

Incidentally, the Irish presence here was increased yesterday by the arrival of financier JP McManus, who is a guest of world number one Woods.

The demands for everyone, however, are to be long and accurate off the tee - and then to be precise with iron shots, deft with the short game, and even more so with the putter. As such, the same old suspects come into the equation. Woods, of course.

But also Duval, despite his failure to win since the British Open last July, Phil Mickelson, who certainly has the power and whose ability to cut the ball could well be aided by the changes, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Jose Maria Olazabal, Sergio Garcia and Retief Goosen, the player with the best current form in golf.

There are 17 European players in the field - including former winners Olazabal, Bernhard Langer, who will try to extend his consecutive cut streak to 19 in his Masters career, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam, Sandy Lyle and Seve Ballesteros - and, if anything, the demands for creative shots around the greens are likely to be greater on this occasion, which could lend some weight to European claims for success.

But when all is said and done, it is as hard as ever to look beyond the claims of the defending champion, the man who slammed his way to the title last year. "The player to look at is the number one player in the world, Tiger," admitted Mickelson.

"He's the guy that everybody has got to watch out for, and given his length and accuracy and distance control, he's going to be the guy to beat."