Woods knows McIlroy is fuelled to challenge after Texas display

Is Tiger Woods the man to beat? (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Is Tiger Woods the man to beat? (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
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Eight years have passed since Tiger Woods last donned the green jacket as Masters winner.

He has, by turn, strengthened his dominance, fallen on hard times and risen again during the intervening seasons as five more majors were won – and his life turned upside down.

Woods was written off by some as repeated knee surgery prompted a changed of swing that precipitated a drop down to No 51 in the world rankings.

But as another major year dawns among the azaleas at the awe-inspiring Augusta, his is the name on everyone’s lips once more.

Woods is on top of the world again and back doing what he does best – staring down opponents, winning tournaments and sending shockwaves through the golfing world.

Gone is the raw, unharnessed power of 16 years ago when he burst onto the scene with that blistering 18-under-par total that redrew the golfing landscape in this lucrative area of golfing real estate.

In its place is a more measured Woods, a hardened 37-year-old who may still have a worrying knack of putting his drive into the trees, but retains the ability to 
extricate himself from such a mess. Most ominously, his putting is getting back to where it was when he was sweeping all before him at the turn of the millennium.

A sure sign of anyone in form is if their putts drop in the centre of the hole, and Woods is hitting the back of the cup with an almost machine-like regularity.

His appetite for success remains as insatiable as ever, as does his desire to get back into the major winner’s circle.

While he has gone without a Masters title for eight years, it is five years since his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’s 18 major titles hit the buffers following his astonishing win, almost on one leg, in the 
US Open at Torrey Pines.

Woods has won three times on the PGA Tour this season, all at courses he is comfortable playing having won there many times before; Torrey Pines, Doral and Bay Hill.

The last time he won three straight heading to Augusta was in 2003. The last time he won back-to-back Tour titles, as he did with victory at the WGC Cadillac Championship and the Bay Hill Invitational in the last month, he made it three in a row with a victory over Phil Mickelson and David Duval. That was in 2001.

Since those days of dominance and his last victory at Augusta, Woods has remained a regular threat at the year’s first major.

Between 2006 and 2011 he was never out of the top six, finishing second twice. Last year’s 40th place was the only aberration.

“I put myself in the mix every year but last year, and that’s the misleading part,” Woods said this week.

“It’s not like I’ve been out there with no chance of winning this championship. I’ve been there, and unfortunately just haven’t got it done.”

The broadcasters would love nothing more than to see if Woods can “get it done” when stood alongside Rory McIlroy on that fabled back nine on Sunday.

The world’s best two players, the long-standing standard bearer against the emerging force, would give golf a duel to savour, akin to Nicklaus versus Tom Watson in the Open at Turnberry and Nick Faldo against Greg Norman 17 years ago.

McIlroy belatedly seems to have found some form, after shoe-horning the Texas Open into his schedule last week and justifying that decision by finishing second.

There were shades of the Woods of old in the way that McIlroy dominated the PGA Tour scene in the late summer of 2012, winning his second major at the PGA at Kiawah Island and then romping to the FedEx Cup title. But his well-documented lucrative change of clubs has seen that momentum checked.

McIlroy has history with Augusta, having led the field by four going into the final round two years ago, only to implode dramatically.

Woods versus McIlroy is what the TV audience will want, but the beauty of golf, and especially the Masters, is that a champion could emerge from anywhere.

There have been seven different winners since Woods last reigned, with only Phil Mickelson a previous winner among that septet.

Zach Johnson, Trevor Immelman, Angel Cabrera and Charl Schwartzel were all unheralded champions.

There are plenty of Americans who could challenge: Brandt Snedeker putts like a dream and has led the Masters before; Keegan Bradley has a major to his name and the game to challenge; Matt Kuchar is a Georgia native and a winner on Tour this year.

Dustin Johnson, Hunter Mahan and Rickie Fowler are all explosive talents, and then there is Bubba Watson, the mercurial talent who produced one of the greatest shots in the history of the tournament to win last year.

Louis Oosthuizen, the man he beat, has become one of the best players in the world, while his countryman Schwartzel has built on his surprising 2011 victory.

Few would begrudge Australian Adam Scott a green jacket. He led down the stretch two years ago only to miss out, and then collapsed desperately at Royal Lytham last summer when he had one hand on the Claret Jug.

And what of the Europeans, away from McIlroy? No one from the continent that has dominated the Ryder Cup has won the Masters since Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999. No man from Britain since Faldo in 1996.

Lee Westwood plays his last major as a 30-something but challenges nearly every year, Ian Poulter has yet to translate matchplay form into major strokeplay events while Justin Rose and Luke Donald promise plenty but are yet to truly deliver.

Graeme McDowell or Texas Open winner Martin Laird could end Britain’s wait and then from mainland Europe, Francesco Molinari has the iron play to contend, and Sergio Garcia is back to something like his best.

Contenders abound among the azaleas of Augusta.