Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Masters and a Wounded Tiger

Golf is not a sport this blog has ventured into writing on yet but with the imminent start of the only tournament to rival The Open for history and stature in the Augusta Masters and with the continuing trials and tribulations of golf and even sport's most famous son, it is time to break that duck.

Woods' staggering fall from grace has been well documented and no further comment on those issues is required. What is however incredibly pertinent is just where all this has left a man who was previously so untouchable at the pinnacle of his sport for over a decade. In a sport where you can do nothing directly to affect your opponent (in tennis for instance your opponent can do nothing if you simply serve ace after ace), his domination over all others - and there have been many great opposing talents over this period - has bordered on the absurd. As much as Woods has done so much to change the physical aspect of golf with so much more focus on fitness and conditioning, Woods' dominance over these other seemingly mere mortals was nothing to do with the strength of his limbs but with the strength of his mind (Morpheus of The Matrix fame would certainly have approved). Ernie, Phil and co were already beaten before they stepped on the first tee box.

Tiger didn't hit the ball as far as some surprisingly enough and his driving could be wayward at best but on a Sunday when we needed to produce a magical long iron or drill a fourteen footer for par he would invariably get the job done. At the same time his playing partner would usually be staring down the barrel of seventy-five. It was this incredible ability to produce the goods when it mattered that set him apart and as a front runner he had no peers. Until the USPGA of 2009, Tiger had won fourteen from fourteen in Majors leading into the final day, it was at this point that his life also began to unravel probably without the slightest hint of coincidence. And here is the issue, the aura has gone.

It didn't really make any difference to his peers what Tiger did off the course or at least it shouldn't and knowing the way that most 'circles' are, it is difficult to believe that a large number of the PGA members had not heard of his indiscretions, so numerous and blatant were they. Despite all of this his image was fully intact with not a crack in his armour, after all in 2008 he had even won the US Open playing on one leg, the man was untouchable. Since the scandal, nothing has been the same.

It is possible that the above is being overplayed, he did after all play very well at the Masters last year with practically zero competitive golf under his belt. Tiger - much like Nick Faldo who was also derided for the same trait - is at least in golfing terms a perfectionist and always strives to improve and for that reason he has changed his swing yet again. Everyone knows that when you are half way through trying to fix something in your golf game, the last place you should be is on the course and that is universal at all levels. That being the case it is very hard to see Tiger being consistent enough to challenge seriously this week especially as the magic with the putter (his most incredible weapon to this blog's mind) does not seem to be present at the moment either.

It is easy to write Tiger off, many have before and many are now. It is unlikely he will ever dominate like he did before but he has still has it in him to win majors, the issue is whether the focus and desire is still burning at the level it was previously. Even for such a single minded competitor, the emotional toil of the past two years must have been immense.

And so to the tournament, one of the truly great sporting events of the year. Golf seems to be going through a transitional phase right now, a changing of the guard so to speak. The great players of recent years, Woods, Els, Goosen and Furyk amongst others are all seemingly in steady decline. Mickelson remains a great player but his youth is now firmly behind him. Others such as Adam Scott, Camilo Villegas and Luke Donald have not really risen to the top as they probably would have wished to. Huge paychecks for merely showing up and too many Titleist and Rolex adverts may be to blame.

All of this leaves a very open tournament with a host of hopefuls such as Dustin Johson, Hunter Mahan and the dual Irish threat of McIlroy and McDowell. Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood will join Phil Mickelson as the tournament favourites based on the current World rankings. It's a refreshingly open field but we'll plump for one of the old timers in Mickelson to win the Green Jacket one more time now that the shadow his nemesis Tiger Woods casts is so much smaller - No Nonsense.