Time for Tiger to walk the walk

Tiger Woods did his talking in the interview room on Monday. Now it’s time to make the clubs sing.

After five months out of the game, the question is this: Will the disgraced world number one choke as the orchestra strikes up in the greatest amphitheatre that golf has to offer and hit a series of bum notes or will the virtuoso’s chest swell with pride and blow away the chorus?

If the bookmakers, those canny judges of form, know anything it’s that you can never write off the man once dubbed the Chosen One. Yet those who watch the odds closely will have noticed Woods’ chances of donning a fifth green jacket have lengthened considerably since he exposed his rusty golf game to the paying public on Monday morning.

From a prohibitive 2/1, he left the property last night as a “mere” 5/1 favourite to win the 74th staging of the Masters Tournament. As for the odds against him missing the cut, those have come in from 6/1 to 9/4.

But while the bookmakers are hedging their bets as a result of painful past experience, a multiple major winner put Woods mammoth task in stark perspective.

“A couple of things,” two time US Open champion Curtis Strange said earlier this week. “One; he hasn’t played in four or five months. That in itself makes it extremely tough to come out and play well. I don’t care if it’s a big tournament or a small tournament. This happens to be the most pressurised tournament on a very tough golf course. So that in itself would be asking him to come back and play really well and be sharp. 

“The other thing is all these distractions off the golf course. With that said, I think it will be very difficult for him to be at his best. Yeah, when he’s on he’s so far clear of the next guy and he might not have to be at his best to win at Augusta. But he’s not going to be at his best, because he hasn’t played in such a long time.”

Should Woods pull it off, it would rank the greatest comeback in the history in golf since Ben Hogan returned from a near fatal 1949 car crash to win the 1950 US Open at Merion.

It could also be argued that a Woods win would deal a near fatal blow to the egos of his rivals - perhaps greater than his 12 stroke winning margin here in 1997 or his 15 shot win in the US Open at Pebble Beach almost 11 years ago.

A Woods victory, therefore, is unthinkable. And that leaves the race open to a host of players.

Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els are joint second favourites at 14-1 and it is a toss up between them as to who would be the more popular winner.

Given his wife’s cruel battle with breast cancer and his mediocre early season form, it is difficult to see two time winner Mickelson riding off into the sunset with a third green jacket.

As for Els, his recent wins in the CA Championship at Doral and the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, have led to an explosion of optimism among fans of the  Big Easy that he can go one better than his runner up finishes in the 2000 and 2004 Masters.

Much will depend on how well his putting stroke, the principal cause of his eight-year winless major run, holds up under pressure. So far this year it’s been impressive but Augusta is not Doral or Bay Hill.

Given the above, it’s hard to look past Padraig Harrington’s credentials as he takes on Augusta National for the 11th time. It doesn’t have to be this year, of course, but Harrington has everything required to become the first Irishman to don a green jacket.

Draw off the tee? Check. High ball flight? Check. Sensational short game? Check. Brilliant putter? Make that a check too.

Mental fortitude is perhaps the greatest asset a player can possess as he wrestles with the course and history as he takes on Augusta National’s live or die shots coming down the stretch. Harrington has that in abundance, as we saw at Carnoustie, Royal Birkdale and Oakland Hills.

Will Harrington have luck on is side and separate himself from Mickelson, Els and Vijay Singh and become a four-time major winner? Much depends on luck and Harrington has been left with the taste of honey on his lips a few times already.

As PG Wodehouse said: “Unseen, in the background, Fate was quietly slipping the lead into the boxing glove.”

Harrington is due a run of good luck at Augusta and he knows that putting well, chipping well and making the right decisions at the right times will determine his fate this year. 

The par-fives will be key to his challenge because it is on holes offering multiple options where he tends to outthink himself.

“If I am going to win this tournament I have to be aggressive and hit it down here and try and make an eagle and a couple of birdies on this hole,” he said of the par-five second, where he took a nine last year. 

And what of the 15th, his nemesis in 2007, where his hybrid approach came within inches of setting up a glorious eagle chance before slipping back into the pond?

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what way you play it, at some stage you have got to hit a real golf shot on the hole.  I still stand on 15 thinking this is a birdie opportunity - 100 percent. I stand on the tee thinking this is one of the good opportunities to make birdie.” 

This is a great chance for Harrington but players like Lee Westwood, Retief Goosen, Steve Stricker,  Paul Casey or Ian Poulter will be thinking the same thing.

Whether or not they have the stomach for battle remains to be seen. The sideshow is over. Roll up, roll up for the main event! It promises to be one hell of a spectacle.