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SPORTS STORY

Spitting feathers

Tiger Woods has been in the news for the wrong reasons again, this time on the course. Ed Hawkins wonders whether it is folly to back him for the US Masters when his head may not be right, especially given there are other players in decent nick

It’s not often that we come over all literary in these pages but a quote from AA Milne, who once wrote some decent yarns about a bear called Pooh and was a golf nut, is prescient as we look ahead to the 75th edition of the US Masters. “Golf is popular because it is the best game in the world at which to be bad.”

There is no doubt that Milne was criticising his own on-course foibles but his words, skewed obviously, neatly preview the first Major of the season. A tournament that needs no angle or hype suddenly has a tag line: can the bad boy of golf be good?

Tiger Woods, whose high jinx and lofty opinion of himself could make him the personification of Tigger, another Milne character, is on trial at Augusta in a storyline which could come straight out of US wrestling. Once revered, Woods is close to being reviled. The good guy gone rotten.

The Masters and the Augusta course are synonymous with golfing excellence. The green jacket, despite being a fashion faux pas for the other 51 weeks in the year, is supposed to recognise distinction with a club in hand or not. The fairways and greens are prim, proper and pristine. The players are supposed to behave the same.

That Woods seeks redemption on a course which literally hums with reverence is a fascinating sub-text to one of golf’s greatest tests. It was there last year when Woods returned from his self-imposed exile but this time around his indiscretions have been on course rather than off.

But does it help us find a winner? Undoubtedly. Four-time champ Woods, proof that some people still like him, will go off as favourite.

And the jolly is always the first port of call in a field which will be reduced to 44 (not including ties) for the weekend action. When perusing any golf coupon, a bettor needs to ask whether the favourite can get beat or not.

The baggage which accompanies Woods is probably reason enough to give a definitive yes. When the most important course is the five inches between the left ear and the right the last thing a golfer needs to worry about is whether he is on his best behaviour.

There is no doubt the scrutiny will be microscopic on Woods at Amen Corner and all after a horrible start to the year. There are many just waiting, wishing maybe, for the pariah to sully his reputation further at the hallowed Augusta.

Woods had a ghastly start to the year. He opened the season at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, where he won six times previously. He was five strokes off the lead after the first two rounds, giving a hint of the Tiger of the old, before a horrible implosion on the weekend and he finished in 44th position.

A nadir, on-course at least, followed. One off the lead entering the final round of the Dubai Desert Classic, the former world number one dropped to joint 20th with a 75 rounded off with a double-bogey seven on the final hole. On the 12th green, with a winless sequence stretching back 15 months confirmed, Woods spat just a few feet from the hole after missing a putt.

“You look at his work ethics and he is a credit to the game and an inspiration to all of those who are trying to become professional golfers,” said respected commentator Ewen Murray, who had criticised the player’s spitting on the tee in the second round.

“But there are some parts of him that are just arrogant and petulant. Somebody now has to come behind him and maybe putt over his spit. It does not get much lower than that.”

Indeed. But what Woods’ behaviour did achieve was expose him as mortal. Take this quote from his agonising (to watch) mea culpa following the revelations about his private life. “When I do return, I need to make my behaviour more respectful of the game.” Signing autographs, smiling and replacement words for swears followed, an act which could not be kept up as his game crumbled.

The superman of golf has been proven to be as mentally fallible as any other player walking the links. And there is the rub. Woods never has been, never will until the decline is terminal to all and sundry, priced up as an ordinary professional golfer. His form is perfectly adequate for a top player but it is well below the standards he has set. And that is probably the best reason of all why he should be avoided at odds of around 11/2.

Phil Mickelson, something of a pantomime villain when Woods was basking in the glory of adoring public, is, of course, the reigning champion and there is forever a place on the sideboard of this column for a snap of Leftie trying on his third green jacket after he was recommended this time last year.

Mickelson is 7/1 and when you consider his statistics it looks a generous price. He has missed the cut only once in 18 appearances at Augusta, finishing in the top ten on all bar one of the last 11 occasions and has finished third four times. What turns up our nose, however, is the fact that Augusta is a darn hard place to win back-to-back titles. Only Woods (2002) has managed it since Nick Faldo in 1990.

He could be a spent force in this tournament, too. One gets the impression that his 2010 win drained him emotionally and he may find it hard to recover the same sparkle. It just won’t feel the same after his tearful victory, achieved in front of his wife Amy, who was attending her first event since recovering from breast cancer.

Lee Westwood was second that day. “I’ve finished third, third, second in my last three majors and there was a time when I couldn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel,” he said at the time. “Phil was saying in the cabin that he’s been that man too.”

Westwood, the world No 1, will surely break his major duck eventually and he would do well to listen to the wise words of Mickelson, who was the previous holder of the title of golf’s nearly man. Westwood is third favourite at 14/1 although we cannot be convinced that this will be his year.

The Notts lad’s record at Augusta is just not good enough for a tournament where course form is everything – curiously there has not been much of a trend for ‘current’ form impacting. Prior to his second-place finish Westwood had a horrible record there. Since 2000 he has missed the cut three times and finished 44th, 30th, 11th and 43rd. His 2010 charge looks like an exception to a rule.

Of the next nine men in the betting, seven are European. This reflects where the power lies in world golf with six (at the time of the writing) of the world’s top 10 hailing from the other side of the pond. Martin Kaymer is 18/1, the precocious Rory McIlroy 25/1, Graeme McDowell 28/1, Paul Casey 29/1 and Padraig Harrington, Luke Donald and Ian Poulter all 40/1.

Of that list McDowell and Casey deserve closer inspection. Ulsterman McDowell last year broke the dusty seal on Europe’s bottled-up major potential by becoming the first European to win the US Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970. He was the first player from the UK to win a major since Paul Lawrie at Carnoustie in 1999.

Nobody really knows whether McDowell can follow that up with success at Augusta because he barely knows the course. He finished tied 17th last year having not played in four of the five previous years and missed the cut in the odd one out.

Casey is a nice price and it is advised that readers enjoy some each-way interest in this calm 33-year-old from even calmer Cheltenham. His record in the Masters is solid. A missed cut last year was a blemish but otherwise sixth, tenth, 11th and 20th since 2004 is confidence inducing.

Our favoured pick, however, is one from left field. The future is bright for Hunter Mahan (it should be, he hails from Orange County) and at 50/1 he fits the bill perfectly.

It has been impossible not to spot Mahan, 28, as a potential Major winner, his progress unmissable as he has eaten into the rankings year on year. By August 2007 he reached the top 50 and by March 2008 the top 30. He now sits 20th in the rankings. Most importantly he knows how to win. Mahan won the Bridgestone Invitational – no pitch and putt free-for-all – in August to take his tally of USPGA successes to three. His Masters and major record is coming along nicely, too; 10th and eighth in the last two years and sixth in the US Open in 2009.

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