Padraig Harrington has no clue how Tiger Woods will react when he returns from self-imposed exile at the Masters.
But the triple major winning Dubliner has an uneasy feeling that the world No 1 could well rise to the challenge and produce one of the greatest performances of his career.
As one of Woods’ main rivals, Harrington could never afford to buy into the Tiger as Superman theory. But deep down he knows that the 14-time major winner will thrive when the only awkward questions are posed by the 18 holes of Augusta National
After enduring months of ridicule and stress, Harrington reckons Woods may finally regain control when he steps back onto a golf course that is the big cat’s natural habitat.
Assessing next week’s eagerly awaited Masters and the challenge facing Woods, Harrington said: “When Tiger gets back on the course he is going to feel like a champion. He is going to feel like a star when he is back out there again.
“He is the number one player in the world and he has gotta feel good to be out there again.”
Harrington knows that Woods does not need much motivation to play well on his return to the game after a five-month absence.
Having confessed to carrying on a string of affairs that have cost him over $50m in lost endorsements, he believes that Woods may well feel that a huge weight has been lifted from his shoulders and let his clubs do the talking.
Like the rest of world golf, Harrington has no idea what to expect from a rusty Tiger, but he does know that you can never write him off.
He said: “I didn’t get to see it but there was a lot of talk when Tiger was playing through the summer last year that he looked irritated on the golf course. You’ve got to think that’s going to be gone.
“There’s got to be a huge release of tension. Even if he three-putts the first green when he comes back, I still think he’ll have a smile on his face walking to the second tee.
“Players play very well when they have that relaxed, fatalistic attitude to their golf and their scoring. I’m not necessarily saying he’s going to be relaxed when he’s out on the golf course but when it comes to the actual performance and the scoring, he could play very well.
“If I was to judge how he’s going to play, the lack of competition is going to be difficult. Saying that, he’s one of the best players in the world for competing without competition because he’s done it plenty of times in the past. He’s gone into tournaments reasonably cold and performed off the bat.
“The lack of competition is going to be detrimental, but I definitely think that by being in a comfortable environment, by being out there and getting back on the golf course, back onto his playground, his attitude is going to be so much better that it could give him an improved performance. Which will counteract which? That is the million dollar question.”
There are many intangibles about next week’s Woods watch at Augusta but what Harrington does know is that the massive focus on the world’s most famous sportsman can only be good news for him and the rest of the fancied players.
Providing he is not drawn with Woods when the draw is announced on Tuesday, he will happily slip under the radar until the tournament gets under way.
He said: “There’s always been a lot of talk about Tiger and it does take a little bit of the pressure off the rest of us.
“There’s no doubt it will help other people go about their business. It’s one of those things. When the focus and pressure is elsewhere, it obviously reduces yours and that’s a good thing.
“One of the keys to winning a tournament is you’ve got to be strong on Sunday afternoon. If from the Monday of that week there’s a lot of interviews, questions, expectations, pressures and stresses, it’s hard to stay mentally strong for the seven days.
“The ideal thing would be to get by until the Sunday without too many people asking if I am going to win.
“So if he’s the big story it means every other story is not as significant, which definitely helps other people do their own thing, which is essential for winning big events.”
Some believe that Woods has lost some of his aura following the sensational revelations about his sex life.
But Harrington has beaten Woods several times in the past and never allowed himself to regard Woods as some kind of super hero.
How could you possibly hope to beat someone if you regard them as invincible.
Harrington said: “It was very easy to fall into that trap but as a competitive player you’d be at pains not to put him up on a pedestal.
“We’d no idea what was going on in his life. Walking down the fairway at the PGA, I asked him if he could actually go out to the cinema with his daughter Sam.
“I assumed that he couldn’t because his life was like living in a fish bowl, that he couldn’t leave his hotel room and things like that.
“So obviously at that stage I had a different perception of it all. But in terms of golf and his sporting prowess, I’d be at pains not to get caught up in thinking he was perfect.
“You’d focus on any of the weaknesses he had in his game. Obviously we talk about the strengths a lot but, as a player, you’d try and imagine if you were playing that guy in a playoff and as you stand on that tee, you’d look across and focus on his weaknesses so you would have the confidence that you are going to overcome.
“So I would not have always looked to the perfect side of Tiger. I’d have looked where do I think he’s not 100 per cent and where would I have an edge over him.
“I wouldn’t have seen him as the perfect golfer. If you asked me to build the perfect golfer I’d have taken parts from many players and not just one.”