Woods the 'man to beat'
IS THAT the sound of Tiger Woods' rivals running to the hills? Not quite, although Justin Rose does believe that he and his fellow pros should resign themselves to another period of domination from the red-shirted one.
Rose is not given to hyperbole, but the Englishman is prepared to make a grand statement when it comes to the winner of Sunday's Arnold Palmer Invitational. Not only will Woods return to the top of the world rankings, but he will also break Jack Nicklaus's record major haul in a handful of seasons. Rose does not necessarily disagree with the assessment of Johnny Miller, the former major champion turned celebrated TV analyst, that "Tiger could win 35 to 40 more times in his career".
"To tell you the truth, if he's going to be playing like this again, I think he will dominate golf again," said Rose the day after the 36-year-old lifted his first official title in more than two years. "I see him winning a major a year for the next five, six years, plus four other tournaments a year. Which is pretty damn good."
That must be a chilling thought for the rest, who will go to the season's first major knowing there will only be one favourite. Despite the undoubted merits of Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood and himself, even, Rose spots the likelihood of a fifth Green Jacket heading to a certain wardrobe. "He's going to be the man to beat at Augusta," said the world No 8, who won the WGC-Cadillac Championship a fortnight ago, of The Masters, which begins on 5 April. "Even Tiger playing badly has competed at Augusta the last couple of years."
Those two fourth places in the wake of the sex scandal do seem to take on an ominous significance. If Woods can finish so high when his swing and his mind are all over the place, what might he achieve in the form he showed to win at Bay Hill by five strokes?
After describing the experience as "pure joy", Woods was typically understated, saying: "I understand how to play Augusta National and I'm looking forward to my opportunities this year." His caddie, Joe LaCava, summed up his employer's eagerness. "Tiger wishes the Masters was tomorrow," he said.
LaCava, who took over Tiger's bag six months ago, believes his player will now go onwards and ever upwards. "Even a guy like that still needs to win to have confidence, so I think it gives him a lot going into Augusta," he said. "It proves to him that all the hard work's paid off and he can still get it done. I don't think he ever doubted himself, but it's nice to win so you can have that self-belief."
Woods would never admit it, but the timing of his 72nd PGA Tour win - one short of Nicklaus - must have been sweet for another reason than its proximity to Augusta. Today, The Big Miss, the controversial tell-all by his former coach Hank Haney, will be published. It already seems outdated. Furthermore, Woods' accuracy with the driver appeared to justify the promise of Sean Foley, Haney's successor. Foley, who is also Rose's coach, told Woods he would transform him into what he never was under Haney - a great driver.
"I don't need to be validated," Foley said. "It's all a process of learning. I'm happy see him like this, because winning, outside of his kids, is what matters to him most."
There remain doubts over Woods' putting, regardless of the numbers at Doral. However, Zach Johnson, the 2007 Masters champion, believes this is what defines him from the rest. For all the talk about McIlroy and the new generation, Johnson is not convinced the young Ulsterman or any contemporary yet qualifies as an heir. "There are some young guys out there who have an immense amount of talent but if and when they make putts when they have to make putts, then I might rescind my belief that Tiger is still the best," he said.
Maybe the Masters will settle the debate. "Tiger winning by five means Tiger will be favourite," said Ian Poulter yesterday. "But then there is Rory who, after last year [when he shot 80 in the final round], wants to make amends, Luke's in great form, as is Lee [Westwood] and Phil [Mickelson]. There's so many guys playing well right now. Yes, there is more momentum going into this Masters than any I can remember. For golf fans it's very exciting."
Poulter will fancy his own chances, having come third at Bay Hill, as will Graeme McDowell, the Ulsterman who ran Woods closest in Orlando. Yet none of them will concern the new world No 6 if he can replicate this performance. Typical of the man, however, he has returned to Jupiter, Florida, to make improvements before his effort to win a first major in four years.
"I need this week off to work on some things," said Woods. "I enjoyed the progression we made this week. It's a very good sign going into Augusta." For him and golf both.