The Month Ahead - April

By: Tony Dear


What good, patient little golf fans we've been, waiting for a tournament whose result we'll still remember in 20 years' time. It's been eight long months since the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, where Rory McIlroy demolished the game's elite for a second time - his eight-stroke win in South Carolina matching his eight-stroke margin at the 2011 U.S. Open - so we're good and ready for some historically significant golf.

We've watched 14 PGA Tour events so far this year and, while there have been numerous highlights - Phil Mickelson winning wire-to-wire in Phoenix, Tiger Woods winning three times, Brandt Snedeker's continued rise to eminence and five first-time winners, nothing has quite delivered the drama and entertainment we're due next week.

But then, it never could. For no matter what happens at Augusta National and the Masters, be it a 50-yard hook with a wedge by Bubba Watson in extra holes (2012), or a Mike Weir-Len Mattiace playoff (2003), it is always, always more exciting than what happens elsewhere. Always.

And though nothing could ever eclipse Jack Nicklaus's come-from-behind win in 1986 surely, this year's tournament does offer the thrilling prospect of a seriously in-form Tiger Woods.

Though the new world No. 1 (that somehow doesn't sound right when talking about a player who held the position for 623 weeks prior to his win at Bay Hill two weeks ago) reeled off an incredible six straight top-six finishes at Augusta following his victory in 2005, a period that included the rather unseemly business with his former wife, the poor mental state that ensued, plus a good many problems with his left leg, it's true to say that for a significant time Woods was fighting his swing while his putting slowly declined. Indeed, only a player of his immense natural skill and grim determination could possibly have strung such a run of results together under the circumstances.

This year Woods will arrive in Georgia with a swing that hasn't looked so solid, synchronized and superior since the 2006 Open Championship at Hoylake, when he seemed totally in command of his ball in shooting 18-under 270. He has always liked to tell the world about the "process" of remodeling a swing and how long it takes. But most who've listened to him have wondered why, if he knew it would take so long, he would bother taking that time when he could still win multiple events with a swing he considered imperfect. Over the years, however, Woods has shown us two things besides his colossal talent: he is prepared for the grind, and he loves putting one over on a press corps that has frequently questioned his motives.

It seemed nonsensical for him to leave Butch Harmon after compiling a Hall of Fame career before his 30th birthday - eight majors and six PGA Tour Player of the Year awards. But Woods had grown weary of Harmon's rapidly increasing media appearances, and also believed Hank Haney's more plane-focused method would put less pressure on his ailing left knee and prove more durable. Some thought him stubborn for leaving Harmon and were silently pleased that his form dipped in 2004 when he managed only one PGA Tour victory - the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship - and that, at least at the beginning of his time with Haney, Woods occasionally appeared all at sea.

Once he grew comfortable with his shallower swing plane, however, Woods added another six majors and four Player of the Year awards to a record that was looking more and more like Nicklaus's with every passing season. Then his relationship with Haney turned sour and, after going coachless for a spell, Woods hooked up with Sean Foley, who wasn't terribly complimentary of his predecessor's approach and systematically de-Haneyfied Tiger's motion.

The start of the Foley administration coincided with Woods's divorce and continued health issues, which were to blame for two winless years and his dive to No. 58 in the world, a place no one thought he would ever see. The naysayers who criticized the Harmon-Haney swap were now redoubling their efforts.

Though he failed to win a major in 2012, Woods did win three times against quality fields, however, a run that saw him climb back into the top two of the world rankings with just the uncommonly gifted, fast-tracking McIlroy to rein in.

Now, having toppled the Ulsterman after three wins in two months to start his 2013 campaign, Woods is very much the favorite heading into Augusta, where he will be seeking a long-awaited fifth green jacket. Not only is he in harmony with Foley's instructions/suggestions, his putting stroke has reclaimed the conviction it apparently lost for a good two years. Now first in the PGA Tour's Strokes Gained - Putting statistical category, Woods looks especially ominous.

His competition will come from all angles, of course, such is the depth of major championship fields these days. At the moment, however, it seems little threat will come from McIlroy as the 23-year-old's form has dipped rather alarmingly. Save for the closing 65 at the WGC Cadillac Championship in Miami last month - a round that gave him his solitary top-10 finish through five starts in Europe and the U.S. in 2013, McIlroy has appeared less like golf's dominator-elect and more like a struggling mini-tour player out of his depth among the big boys.

What impact the change of clubs from Titleist to Nike has had on his game is impossible to quantify, but it's clear McIlroy hasn't yet formed the same bond with his Covert driver and VR Pro Blade irons as he had with his 712MBs and 913 D3.

McIlroy will play in San Antonio this week, desperately seeking to restore the swagger with which he ended 2012. One suspects he needs a really good finish to have any hope of making it to Augusta with enough confidence to contend but, of course, talents like his seem able to turn it on at the flick of a switch. McIlroy hasn't yet shown the ability to summon championship-winning golf from the darkest of places like all the true sporting greats, but having witnessed the golf of which he is capable few would choose to count him out entirely.

Others you suspect might show up on the leaderboard at some point are three-time champion Phil Mickelson; Justin Rose, who most definitely has the mechanics to win the biggest titles; Louis Oosthuizen, who came so close last year and only has to putt well it seems to win every tournament he enters; and Matt Kuchar, who won the WGC Match Play in February and has the temperament for the big events.

Who's to say Watson can't add to his Masters legend, and Snedeker might also figure strongly. Two missed cuts since returning from the rib injury that put him out for six weeks, however, shows the Nashville native is nowhere near the form that saw him clinch his fifth Tour victory plus three more top-three finishes before the middle of February.

Dark horses - you've got to have a couple - include big-hitting Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts, whose length gives him an enviable advantage around 7,435-yard Augusta National, and Fred Couples . . . just because.

Following the Masters comes the RBC Heritage and the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, which are both hugely important events to the organizers, local communities, benefiting charities and, of course, the winners. But forgive me for glossing over them and devoting about 98 percent of this column to April's main event.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.


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