For all the usual excitement and carnival atmosphere that accompanies
the opening Major of the year, there's only one big question at Augusta this week: does
Tiger still have what it takes?
The world's most famous sportsman has seen his life crumble
before his very eyes over the past 18 months. His marriage has broken down. His
success on the course has evaporated. His bank balance has been hammered by
divorce and lost sponsorship deals.
And perhaps crucially, his favourite off-course pastime - one
which still involves shafts, balls and holes - has been curtailed by the
scandal surrounding his personal life. And to those of you sniggering at the
back of the class, this is a serious point; his persistently surly demeanour
suggests that he has been seriously short of, ahem, meaningful R&R recently.
The net result is that his aura of invincibility has gone entirely.
Tiger, for the want of a better word - or any actual word - looks very vincible indeed.
In some ways, however, he's been here before. Bunker
Mentality remembers vividly the Masters back in 2005, when Tiger came to
Augusta off the back of probably the leanest spell of his career. He went on to
win the tournament, playing some of his best ever golf in a stunning finish to his third round then holing the most famous shot of
his career (THAT chip-in on the 16th) and beating the dogged Chris Di
Marco in a play-off.
The parallels with six years ago are spooky: then, as now,
he had gone without a Major since the US Open three years beforehand, and endured a barren
spell which saw him lose his world number one spot.
But it's a lot worse this time. Tiger had only won once in
2004, but won his two early-season staples (Torrey Pines and Bay Hill) before
the 2005 Masters; this time he is winless since November 2009. He had fallen
down the world rankings in 2005, but only into second place; this time, he has
plummeted to a once-unthinkable seventh.
Yet despite all of this, nothing would surprise us less than
to see him slip on his fifth Green Jacket come Sunday night.
The fall and fall of Tiger Woods has generated acres of
newsprint, but the piece that most struck BM was this
snippet of an interview with Butch Harmon in the Daily Telegraph.
"The coolest thing I've seen in my career was in Tiger's
house in Orlando before the US Open in 2001," Harmon reflects. "He
had all four of the trophies on the mantelpiece. These weren't the replicas,
these were the real ones - I remember sitting there, saying, 'That's pretty
cool, isn't it?' He said, 'Yeah, not bad. Now I've got to do it again'."
Tiger remains the only man in history ever to have been able
to display all four professional Majors on his mantelpiece at once. At 35 he is
still - in theory - at the peak of his powers. And for all the talk about his newly-revamped
technique, the truth is that his swing has never been the thing that made Tiger
a 14-times Major winner. It's all about his mental strength and putting under pressure.
Does he still have it? You bet he does - somewhere deep inside, at least - and you'd be mad to
bet against him.
Unless, that is, Phil Mickelson plays like he did in Houston
last week - or indeed as he did at Augusta last year.
What BM wouldn't give to see both those things happen at
once. Surely, just once in their lives, Tiger and Phil must go head-to-head on
the final day of a Major, with the field trailing in their wake, as Nicklaus
and Watson did at Turnberry in 1977.
- - - - - -
Bunker Mentality thought that Lee Westwood's putting woes could
get no worse when it saw him joking about them following his mid-air escape
from death on Sunday night.
But it seems that we underestimated the problem: the Worksop
lad has called his dad in for an emergency putting lesson.
Considering that the world number two could turn to any
coach in the world for help - and that they'd no doubt gladly give their
services for nothing more than a brief doff of the cap during a press
conference - it's a fabulous endorsement of the 37-year-old's faith in his old
"He has watched me longer than anyone else and knows me
best," said Westy.
We're not entirely convinced about his logic - it's a little
like suggesting Manchester United should fire Alex Ferguson and replace him
with somone who hasn't missed a home game since 1924.
But putting confidence - as Sergio Garcia will tell you - is
a strange phenomenon. And if an hour on the putting green with
Westwood Sr can help Britain's best golfer since Nick Faldo break his Major
duck, then we're all for it.
- - - - -
Pre-tournament practice at Augusta has been badly disrupted
by a huge storm which swept through Georgia in the last few days.
With the course wet and stodgy, the greens running slow and
the winds blowing hard, many players (including Tiger and Phil) didn't even
bother going out to practise on Tuesday since the forecast is so outstandingly
good for the rest of the week that what they'd have experienced would bear no
relation to what they'll face come Thursday's opening round.
Those practice round absentees weren't the only thing that hit
the fans who braved the elements, however: a power cut at the factory that
makes the famous Augusta National sandwiches meant that the tournament 'patrons'
(as Augusta call their punters) were denied even the traditional $1.50 Pimento
Cheese to keep them fuelled out on the course.
This equates to Wimbledon running
out of strawberries; or the World Darts Championship running out of Stella
Artois. Luckily, the power was restored after several hours and, for the
tournament days at least, the sandwich service will be back up and running.
- - - - -
BUNKER MENTALITY'S MASTERS PREDICTIONS
BM is putting its admittedly flimsy reputation on the line by
making the following predictions for our
top players to watch this week, in order of world ranking. Feel free to
agree, disagree, openly ridicule our thoughts, or explain who you think will
win and why in the comments box below.
Martin Kaymer - Poor
opening rounds due to pressure of entering first Major as world number one, but
a late surge will give him a top-10 finish.
Lee Westwood - Will
once again be at or near the top for driving and greens in regulation, but a
dry, sunny Augusta is no place to try and find your putting touch.
Phil Mickelson - Full
of confidence and at a place he loves? Lefty will never have a better chance to
become only the fourth man to retain the Masters.
Luke Donald - BM
doesn't care what his ranking is, and is still not impressed by his WGC match
play win a month or so ago. Donald has all the tools to win Augusta by six
shots, but simply doesn't have the guts to land a Major.
Graeme McDowell -
Northern Ireland's finest has gone off the boil just at the wrong moment after
a promising start to the year. Not good news for a streaky player - he'll
struggle to make the cut.
Paul Casey - The Arizona-based
Englishman defended himself in the papers this week against accusations (by
Johnny Miller) that he is a choker. But Miller is right; put him in contention
on the final day of a Major, and watch what happens.
Tiger Woods - As
noted above, BM wouldn't be surprised to see him win in what would be the
biggest two-fingers-to-the-world that sport has ever seen. It also wouldn't be
surprised to see him miss the cut.
Rory McIlroy -
Seven top-10s in his last nine events, yet has somehow stayed under the radar
this time round. BM still doesn't see in him the patience to manage his way
around Augusta, but is eager to be proved wrong.
Dustin Johnson - Bouncing
back from his blown US Open and his blown US PGA with a win at the BMW last
summer was all the evidence you need to suggest that he'll be back up and
Ian Poulter - Nope.
Sorry. Poults may well carry off a Major one day, but it'll be one of the two
Opens rather than a Masters.
Martin Laird -
The latest hastily-proclaimed saviour of Scottish golf looks to have everything needed to carry off a high finish: big hitting, nerveless putting touch and
just enough swagger to go for the risky shots. A good shout for top debutant.