James Corrigan: Harrington and Goosen to the fore in bid to stop the master
Tiger or the field? It is the question being breathlessly considered up and down the Augusta strip, as bets are wagered and reputations are staked in anticipation of today's first round of the 72nd Masters.
So come on, what do you fancy? Having one man hitting that little white ball for your supper? Or 93? On the face of it that is an all too simple quandary, given even greater clarity by the even-money odds being offered either way.
Of course, there are 20 or so veteran champions whose chances can be discounted, if not discredited. The nostalgia-junkies may cast a wet eye at Gary Player competing in his record-breaking 51st Masters, but anyone with the slightest interest in true competition will merely roll their eyebrows at "The Man In Black's" shameless limelight-hogging.
Yet that oh-so gratifying task of scratching out the names of the cherished, but essentially irrelevant old-timers still leaves around 70 genuine rivals to the world No 1. And although justifiable objections can be raised about the credibility of the majority of these, those objections cannot be as fervent as they were this time last year.
Because Zach Johnson was ascribed little to no chance when the field set out on that chilly Thursday morning. But the God-loving short-hitter with the golden putter trampled all over that azalea-garden of Augusta myths to don one of the more unlikely Green Jackets.
In doing so Johnson proved it is possible for any style to chisel out glory around the new National, (always assuming they putt their lights out). His victory also afforded future renewals of the year's first major the promise of uncertainty. Accept it, if Woods had turned up at the old, unaltered Augusta in this current run of form (nine wins in his last 11 tournaments) it really would have been over before it had started. Johnson has cast on the rest a warming ray of hope.
Not that the course-lengtheners are being praised to the Crow's Nest. Far from it. They were widely accused of turning the Masters into the US Open. By ridding Augusta of some of its vagaries, by planting trees and growing the infamous "second cut", they left themselves open to the critics who cried that the green-jackets had desecrated the fun of the challenge. Whether those claims are deemed correct or erroneous, what cannot be denied is that the cheers of 2007 were so much more subdued than before.
It must be pointed out that the cold, freakish weather did not help in that regard, but still the suspicion lingers that the thrills and the spills have been sacrificed in the name of protecting the winning score. The doubters will pray they are wrong – or maybe not – but they are expecting more of the attritional stuff this next four days, when putts are to save par and not to make birdie and the screams are of anguish and not of ecstasy. Depressingly, the words of a couple of the expected protagonists seem to back up this pessimism.
First to Woods, who effectively lamented the eradication of so many of the options off the tee-box. "You have to drive the ball well in order to win here; before you could spray it all over the place and you actually tried to spray it all over the place to give yourself the best angles to go into the greens," said the four-time champion. "On the ninth, you used to hit the ball so far right to give yourself an angle up to those left pins; now with the added trees you can't really do that anymore. It's playing a lot more different and a lot more penal off the tee but the greens are still the same. The greens are still just as penal."
Over to the world No 2, Phil Mickelson, who had a message for those envisaging a leaderboard covered in red numbers – look again. "The scores won't be lower than in 2007 [when Johnson won at one over]," said the two-time champion. "In fact, I think the scores may get higher. The length is the biggest factor. Also, the new trees and the tightening of the course."
How do the rank and file feel, then? Well, what about this from the Australian Nick O'Hern. "It would be nice if the fairways could be dry again," said the left-hander, after seeing the lush, watered conditions and almost weeping on the spot. "I've only known bloody long on this golf course. You just hit it as far and as straight as you can. There's no shaping the ball, except to the greens. Just get up there and smash it."
It is not all doom, gloom and more doom, though. On Tuesday, Padraig Harrington launched an impassioned defence of Alister MacKenzie's masterpiece, urging the naysayers to wake up and smell the azaleas. "It's back to as it should be," said the Open champion. "When I first played here, I hit a lob wedge into the 18th. That hole was not intended to be like that. The test is like it was originally meant to be." Asked if Augusta was still unique, the Dubliner barked. "You bet it is. It'll always be special."
Amen to that, and yes to Amen Corner and to every other delicious intricacy which long ago established Augusta as the most revered destination on Planet Golf. Such a positive outlook will doubtless serve Harrington well and this is not the only reason why he is Europe's best hope of winning a first Masters in nine years. The confidence gleaned from that Carnoustie win added to his peerless short game, identify the 36-year-old as one of Woods's most serious threats. Retief Goosen is another fancied to challenge, while Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 US Open hero, has all the right qualities.
But what of the British contingent and the likelihood of a belated successor to Nick Faldo? Wales and Scotland have only Ian Woosnam and Sandy Lyle respectively to shout home (probably sometime on Friday evening), while England's cause appears markedly less forlorn. There are six brave boys all under 35 and in Justin Rose, Lee Westwood and Luke Donald three with live chances.
Can Rose reprise last year's heroics when tying for fifth? Can Westwood continue his resurgence? Can Donald string four good rounds together? Indeed, can Nick Dougherty succeed with his audacious "loosest goose in the west" game-plan and so become the second debutant to triumph after Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979?
Questions, questions, questions. But one rings out above all others. "Tiger or the field?" Surely that is what defines this Masters.
Augusta: Card of the course