Double trouble as Irish stars await Woods’ Masters return

In the first Major since Padraig Harrington’s victory in the USPGA, the Rathfarnham man will be aiming to derail Tiger Woods return to action, writes Hugh O’Connor.FROM THE WALK down Magnolia Lane to get there, to the (admittedly stilted) green jacket ceremony in the Butler Cabin, the Masters has always been the major with the most mystique.Perennially staged at Augusta National, its 96-man fi eld is the most exclusive of the big four. Although the youngest of the majors by nearly 20 years, its history, and that of its creator Bobby Jones, is full of heroics and heartbreak, celebration and slip-ups.This year, there are several potential fairytales in the making. Tiger Woods is back with a bang. He eased himself in with a solid performance at Doral, and leapt back into the winner’s circle with a thrilling one-shot victory last week at Bay Hill. Standing over a 16-foot putt to win in the gathering gloom, few would have bet against him. Most enjoyable for the game was the delight and passion of both Tiger and caddie Steve Williams – so it may be win number 80, but it still means that much to them.Tiger loves Augusta. He’s won four Masters, and although the last one was in 2005, he’s fi nished in the top three each year since. The putt at Bay Hill last week was what Tiger’s all about. When he needs to make something, he makes it. When he has an opportunity, he grasps it. No one who saw it will ever forget his chip-in on 16 on Sunday in 2005.That’s the sort of shot he pulls out when a major is on the line.For at least another few days, the dream of the Paddy Slam is still alive. The only player to have held all four professional major titles at once is, of course, Woods, but Harrington is still on course. He also enjoys playing at Augusta, with two top-seven fi nishes in his last two starts here.
“Rory McIlroy, the latest sensation to hit the golfi ng world, is seventh favourite going into what will only be his second major championship”
As anyone who watches him knows, he doesn’t need to be in great form going in, as long as he’s swinging with relative profi ciency. With Harrington, it comes down to grit and determination. If he’s faced with pressure putts on the last day, he’ll make them, and he’s not going to give up until he’s on his way home.Rory McIlroy, the latest sensation to hit the golfi ng world, is seventh favourite going into what will only be his second major championship, and his fi rst in the States. He has the complete game, including a fantastic temperament. He was calm and collected in his outing in the Match play, and only lost to Geoff Ogilvy, who was unbeatable that week.His only weakness is his middledistance putting – he just doesn’t hole enough. No one wins the Masters struggling on the greens, and if he wants to be in contention come Sunday evening he’ll have to sink some. It’s almost bizarre that no one’s interested in hearing about McIlroy doing anything but winning the Masters this early in his career, but it’s an accurate refl ection of his class.As regards other tips, don’t hold your breath for a successful title defence this year. Trevor Immelman, after mastering Augusta and Woods twelve months ago, has hardly been since.However, don’t be surprised by a resurgence from twice US Open Champion Retief Goosen. The South African’s experienced a decline since that last major in Shinnecock Hills in 2004, but he came back strongly to win in America a couple of weeks ago, and he’s been in the top three in Augusta three of the last four years. His putting is superb, he has winning experience, and he’s not easily fazed – he’ll be in the mix.Phil Mickelson is another player who’s hit form recently – despite spending the Saturday night on a drip being treated for heat exhaustion, he won the CA with a gritty display worthy of Harrington himself. Many people have said thatAugusta sets up well for lefties, and with two wins since 2004, Mickelson will be looking to further close the gap on Tiger at the top of the world.What about Sergio Garcia? Does he have it in him? The pressure has been building for quite some time now. It’s hard to believe that he is 29-years-old now, majorless, and without that many wins under the belt. Augusta hasn’t been a happy hunting ground, with three missed cuts in the last four years, and a forth place fi nish in 2004 the only redeeming feature.Sergio simply doesn’t have the putting game to challenge at the highest level – in the WGC he was stitching irons to the pin from everywhere and missing the six-foot birdie putts. This can only lead to huge frustration, and Sergio needs to get his head right before he’s ready to mount a major challenge.The Masters is always a joy to watch – the golf is matched by the glorious course – nearly 80-years after Bobby Jones and Alistair MacKenzie designed it, it remains one of the premier courses worldwide. Challenging for the players, beautiful for the spectators – Peter Alliss remarked once that missing the fairway led to having to play out of the Chelsea Garden Show.No one has run away with the title since Tiger won by a record-breaking twelve shots in 2007, and the last six years have seen two playoff fi nishes. It’s guaranteed as always to be a week of excitement, class, beauty, and who knows? Maybe another chapter in the Padraig Harrington story.