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Woods in hat-trick bid at Augusta
April 03, 2003 15:31 IST
All eyes will be on Tiger Woods when he starts his bid next Thursday for an unprecedented third successive U.S. Masters victory at Augusta National.
Granted, the build-up to the first major of 2003 has been clouded by a planned protest against the club's male-only membership policy and a U-turn by Augusta over tightening the tournament's qualification criteria for ageing past champions.
But when Woods unleashes his opening shot of the tournament amid the Georgian pines framing the fairway on the par-four first, the best golfer in the game will assume centre stage and can be expected to stay there for the next three days.
Twelve months ago, Woods became the third back-to-back winner at Augusta after Jack Nicklaus in 1966 and Nick Faldo in 1990, a closing 71 giving him a three-shot victory over Retief Goosen.
It was his third Masters triumph in only six professional starts and few would bet against him clinching a fourth next week on a par-72 layout where he clearly feels very comfortable.
"I've won on this golf course and that's a pretty powerful statement to say to yourself as you're coming down the stretch and you've got a chance to win, that you've done it here before," said the 27-year-old American.
"It definitely gives you a sense of calmness. I'm excited about the possibility of having an opportunity to go for three straight Masters. It's something that I know has never been done before and I'm certainly looking forward to it.
"It's going to be one heck of a challenge."
Woods took the golfing world by storm when he claimed his first Green Jacket at Augusta in 1997 in record-breaking style.
Aged just 21, he became the tournament's youngest winner, clinching the title by a staggering 12 shots with second-placed Tom Kite trailing in his wake.
Four years later, he won again, becoming the first professional to hold all four majors at the same time with a two-shot triumph over David Duval.
Victory number three 12 months ago gave him a sixth major title in 10 starts and he could even afford to drop two shots over his last eight holes as the expected last-day challenge from his closest rivals failed to materialise.
He relishes the wide, open fairways of Augusta, the almost non-existent rough and the slick, undulating greens. In 25 of his 30 rounds at the Masters, he has carded level-par 72 or better. For his three wins, he is 46 under par.
"There's something special about playing there," Woods said. "I think what also helps is playing there year after year, even though they make changes every year to it."
For last year's tournament, Augusta National underwent significant changes. Nine of its holes were lengthened to stretch the famous layout to 7,270 yards, making it the fifth longest course in major championship history.
Since then, though, only one hole has been changed, with the tee at the par-four fifth pushed back, the fairway bunkers moved 80 yards towards the green and the dogleg characteristic extended.
Heavy rain at Augusta during last year's tournament prevented the revamped course from showing its teeth but that could change dramatically if the sun shines next week, hardening up the fairways and the greens.
Woods missed the first five PGA Tour events of the year following knee surgery last December but has since won three times in only five starts. He believes he is in the best shape of his life.
"I think I'm certainly a better player now because of what I went through last year with all the pain...and all the different compensations that I had to make in my golf swing to be able to get through a round," he said.
"As far as strength and endurance...are concerned, I'm definitely in the best shape of my life."
While Woods will be the undoubted favourite for the title, he will not enjoy the huge psychological advantage he established over his rivals during his remarkable 2000, when he won the last three majors of the year.
British Open champion Ernie Els, benefiting hugely from increased self-belief over the last 10 months, and Davis Love III, winner of the Players Championship on Sunday, are his two most likely challengers on current form.
World number two Els, who slipped back into a tie for fifth at last year's Masters after twice finding water at the par-five 13th in the final round, has won four titles in his first five starts of 2003.
"Life has been great the last couple of months and I'm really thrilled," said the big-hitting South African.
"I don't think I have ever played better than this on the world stage. I really feel like I've stepped up another gear."
Love, twice a runner-up at the Masters, is in prime form, having climbed back into the world's top three for the first time in nearly four years with his victory at Sawgrass on Sunday.
"I feel like I've elevated my game this year...back to where I am comfortable and where I feel like I can compete with anybody," the American said.
"I need to chase myself and not chase anybody. I don't need to worry about anybody else and what they're doing. I can do anything I want to do as long as I'm prepared for it."
But Woods remains the title favourite and, if he wins at Augusta next week, he will clinch his eighth major in his last 14 starts -- and his ninth in all.