Who should be favourite at Augusta this year?
Two writers debate who deserves top billing for Augusta 2012
Tiger Woods, says Dan MurphyFOR the first time since 2008, Tiger Woods is enjoying a proper preparation for Augusta.
And that alone is good enough for me to make him the man to beat in the first Major of the season.
In 2009 he was coming back from injury, in 2010 he was, unforgettably, making his first appearance since the scandal of his personal life had erupted the previous November, and last year his game was nowhere near where he would like it.
All things being equal, he will turn down Magnolia Lane in the first week of April with his best chance of success for years.
Is this the Tiger of 10 years ago, when he only had to turn up to a Major to have the rest of the field mentally playing for second place?
No, it is not. But to say the fear factor has disappeared is just as inaccurate.
I ask you, who would Rory McIlroy or Lee Westwood or Luke Donald or Phil Mickelson or anyone else you care to mention least like to find themselves up against on the back nine at Augusta on Sunday?
That’s right – Tiger.
And since this is a four-time Masters champion we are talking about, his chances should be respected.
The most recent of these wins was seven years ago, true, when Chris Di Marco was defeated in a play-off, but his record since is as follows: T3, T2, 2, T6, T4, T4.
So, despite all he has been through in recent times, the last time he finished outside the top six was in 2004.
In other words, regardless of fitness and form, you cannot rule Tiger out on the wide, manicured fairways and super-slick greens of Augusta.
Even when he has been unable to contend anywhere else, he has always found a way here at a course that, along with the Old Course, seems to suit his eye perfectly.
As ever with Tiger, since he says so little himself you can read and believe whichever rumours you like – from the plausible to the hysterical – concerning his mental and physical wellbeing and what sort of shape his game is really in.
Let’s face it, none would be quite so bizarre as what emerged towards the end of 2009.
But, taken at face value, this is a player who is swinging the club better than he has for years, is building up an impressive run of form (he was ominous for 54 holes at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am before his game and especially his putter went very cold), is something at least close to full fitness and has a sensational track record at this event.
Oh, and he also happens to be the greatest golfer ever to play the game. I rest my case.
Good luck, Rory.
Even when he has been unable to contend anywhere else, he has always found a way here at a course that, along with the Old Course, seems to suit Tiger's eye perfectly.
Rory McIlroy, says Mark TownsendIT seems ridiculous even to suggest that a four-time winner, still only 36, with eight top 10s including six on the trot since 2006, would not be the most fancied player to add another Green Jacket.
Tiger Woods loves the place, contends when he’s been out of the game for several months and has more positive memories of Augusta National than anyone else in the field.
And his game is quickly approaching if not his best, somewhere pretty impressive.
Then there’s Rory McIlroy with only three Masters under his belt, nothing better than a tie for 15th and a missed cut in 2010.
Then, he was in need of a break, he took one and, within a few weeks, closed with a 62 at Quail Hollow for his first PGA Tour win.
There is also the small matter of that back-nine car crash less than a year ago.
There will be demons to exorcise after last year, for the first time in his very young career very odd things happened at the very worst of times.
Never would he imagine that he would be making an unwanted, early trip to the Butler Cabin while playing the 10th, never would he picture himself four-putting the 12th.
Woods never had to go through any of this, his first Masters victory came courtesy of a 12-shot margin, but different players follow different paths. Phil Mickelson, the 2011 favourite, took 43 Majors and plenty of setbacks to win his first, then added another two in two years.
Maybe this sort of horror show had to happen for McIlroy, his putting stroke at the US Open two months later looked a world away from the one that had deserted him in Georgia.
The monkey, which seems very strange for a player of his age, was already off his back. He ended up winning by a very comfortable eight shots at Congressional.
What should buoy McIlroy on his return to Augusta is the way he performed for the first three days in 2011. He did what Woods did so well when he ‘owned’ Augusta – he made it look very easy.
The putter didn’t appear to fire at any real point in the week yet he shot rounds of 65, 69 and 70 to lead by four.
There were no frills, no eagles, no 40-foot bombs, merely a series of enormous tee shots and high-flighted, adjacent irons.
Now the layers of confidence are being added with every month, he already has four other Major top 10s and his last win, in December 2011, was sealed with a holed bunker shot in Hong Kong.
He knew Lee Westwood would overtake him as World No 2 if he didn’t. He’s learning how to win, he’s even had some advice from Jack Nicklaus on how to close out tournaments, and, for me, will be the man to beat in early April in Georgia.