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Tiger Needs a Major

The new number one looks good going into the major season

Posted Mar 26, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece

tiger 5

One of the most fruitless exercises in golf, is to expect Tiger Woods to fritter away shots through silly mistakes while in sight of an important title.  He very rarely did it at the peak of his powers and there was little chance he would do it in the weather-affected Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, on one of his all-time favourite courses.

Rickie Fowler, paired with Woods over the final 18, looked as if he expected some sort of collapse.  That plodding along in contention, would be enough to turn the screw.  And when he finally found the sort of aggression which might have made a match of it, a serious error of judgment on the long 16th led to two balls in the water and a triple-bogey eight.

What we wanted from Fowler was the sort of golf which endeared him to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic on the occasion of his Ryder Cup debut at Celtic Manor in early October 2010.  From a position of four down to Edoardo Molinari early on the back-nine of Monday’s singles, that was when the rookie proceeded to produce four successive birdies over the closing four holes to earn a most improbable, halved match.  

When a similar sort of Monday performance was demanded at Bay Hill, he didn’t deliver.  Mind you, neither did anybody else among the leading challengers.  Which gave a rather hollow ring to earlier protestations from these rivals that Woods no longer generates the fear he once did among opponents.  If there was no fear of Woods, why didn’t an experienced campaigner like Justin Rose throw down the gauntlet in a meaningful way?   

The bottom line is that Woods is back once more, leading his craft as world number once.  And you wonder how Rory McIlroy would have greeted the news, as he prepared for an assault on this week’s Shell Houston Open as his final competitive outing before the US Masters in mid-April.  When asked this time last year about his thoughts on Woods, McIlroy made the interesting observation: “I think the first time I met Tiger I was a little star-struck.  I was more nervous meeting him than Barack Obama.”

Since then, he has accepted regular media talk about serious rivalry between the two of them, with remarkable equanimity.  I especially recall the Irishman’s mild amusement when asked in Turkey last October if the public should read anything into a six-stroke drubbing in his first medal matchplay encounter with El Tigre in an invitation event at Antalya GC.  Where others might have scoffed haughtily at such an inference, McIlroy permitted himself a half-smile, waited a few seconds then quietly mouthed the word “No.”

While there is obvious acknowledgement, even admiration for the achievements of his boyhood idol, there is no danger of McIlroy deferring to Woods should they go head to head in quest of the game’s biggest prizes.  “I always have a great time when Tiger and I play together,” he said.  “In fact I never say ‘good shot!’ as much as when I play with him.  He’s going to win more tournaments and he’s going to contend in Majors.”

That, of course, is the critical question which dogs Woods in the wake of each tournament success these days – and he has already won three times this year.  While the statistics surrounding his latest Bay Hill triumph were hugely impressive, like equalling Sam Snead’s record of eight wins in the same tournament and recording his 77th PGA Tour victory, NBC’s merciless analyst, Johnny Miller, made the point that was on everybody’s lips.

“He needs a Major win,” said Miller, by way of answering the question as to whether Woods is now really back to his best.  As NBC’s man pointed out, the longer the gap since his 14th Major triumph in the US Open at Torrey Pines in June 2008, the more difficult it will be for Woods to close in on Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18.

And he will be acutely aware that the player he has just replaced at world number one, represents the greatest threat to a resumption of his Major journey towards history.  Simply because of a realisation that when the chips are down on Sunday afternoon, McIlroy won’t be afraid to go for the winning line.  All of which makes the forthcoming Major championships, starting with the Masters, a thrilling prospect.    

- Dermot Gilleece

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