Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

McDowell’s just ace but Masters jinx is avoided

Despite a hole-in-one, Graeme McDowell managed to avoid jinxing himself for this year’s Masters at the par three tournament.

McDowell, playing yesterday with Rory McIlroy, aced the finishing hole to top the leaderboard at two under.

But his lead was short-lived as shortly afterwards world number two Steve Stricker came in with a three under 24 — and then 16-year-old Italian Matteo Manassero, the British amateur champion, and David Duval went one better than that.

No-one has ever won the part three competition and gone on to win the Masters that Sunday.

Tiger Woods was also due to grace the competition for the first time since 2004 — part of his ongoing charm offensive. Heaven knows, he's really trying.

Yet the window-dressing inevitably will end today. There's absolutely no hiding place at Augusta on Masters Thursday, when the course is honed and shaved for the hardest, fastest action in Major Championship golf — and after a searing hot week in Georgia, this year's tournament might approach the surreal.

Tiger knows it — today might mark his 16th appearance but one suspects the four-times Masters champion will be more nervous hitting his first shot as the rawest rookie in the field, Matteo Manassero of Italy, at 16 the youngest ever to play the event.

Almost to a man, Tiger's professional colleagues refuse to write off his chances of contending this weekend, with Mickelson the most strident. “Well that's a crazy question to ask, can he win. He showed us he can win in much worse condition in the 2008 US Open.

“I played with him the first couple of rounds and he was not physically at his best, obviously, and his game was not the sharpest and yet he still won. Yet he finds a way to get it done.”

When money talks, however, it says differently. Rated at 2/1 to win the Masters when he announced last month his self-imposed exile would come to an end at Augusta, Tiger's reputation (and little else) ensures he's still the pre-tournament favourite with the bookies, though his odds have eased considerably to 5/1 as punters look to more realistic options.

Interestingly, the odds against Tiger missing the cut for the first time at The Masters have shortened from 8/1 several weeks back to 9/2 in some quarters now.

Clearly, the market reckons he's more likely to have the weekend off than don the Green Jacket for a fifth time next Sunday and, having watched Woods hit his golf ball all over Augusta National in practice, it's hard to disagree.

Action speaks louder than words and Tiger's desperate efforts to whip his game back into reasonable shape during an unprecedented and exhausting 63 holes of practice in four days stridently shouts down the admirably loyal exhortations of his colleagues.

With a couple of tournaments under his belt and the rust knocked off this short game after nearly five months out of competition, Tiger probably will boost his haul of Major titles to 16 at Pebble Beach and St Andrews this summer — but he hasn't a snowball's chance in hell this week.

So who can win the 74th US Masters?

For me, there's two outstanding candidates: Padraig Harrington and Ernie Els, with the nod going to the Dubliner.

Five others who should not be ignored: Retief Goosen, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Paul Casey and Steve Stricker.

And two, two-times winner Mickelson and defending champion Angel Cabrera, who have all the necessary credentials but not the current form.

Els, 40, is an obvious choice following successive victories at the CA Championship and Arnie Palmer's Invitational at Bay Hill.

Harrington might not have won on Tour since completing famous back-to-back victories at The Open and US PGA at Oakland Hills in August 2008 but he's stronger mentally than Els.

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