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The Masters: Ian Poulter provokes wounded Tiger Woods

By James Corrigan

He's got Graeme McDowell, but what he would give for Ian Poulter. Tiger Woods may not be the Tiger Woods of old but he would surely still love going head-to-head with the outspoken Englishman and waging some vengeful fury.

In the good ol' days, when the winning was as easy as the sinning, nothing inspired Woods any more than what he perceived to be a put-down from a opponent. And it is hard to see Poulter's damning assessment of Woods' chances here in any other light. "I don't think he'll finish in the top five," said Poulter. "The shots he was hitting at [the WGC Cadillac Championship] Doral last month were very inconsistent. You can't afford to hit shots like that on this golf course and get away with it."

The question was: would Poulter get away with it? The answer seemed a big fat no when Woods was asked about the comments from the world No 16. "Well, Poulter is always right, isn't he?" said Woods in a tone within an octave or two of total contempt. "My whole idea is to win the golf tournament and that's what I'm trying to do. I've prepared all year to peak four times a year. That's not changed."

Maybe, but so much else has. Since the sex scandal which rocked his world, Woods has borne little resemblance to the icon who collected 14 majors. He is still adjusting to the life of a divorcee, as shown by his frenetic travels at the start of this week. He flew across from Orlando on Sunday morning, back to Orlando that night, spent Monday with his two children, before flying back here for a practice round yesterday. Furthermore, he is in the midst of a radical swing overhaul under the controversial tutelage of the coach/philosopher Sean Foley. Poulter has merely put all these factors together to arrive at the verdict that victory here would represent his most incredible to date.

"You can never rule out Tiger – he has such an incredible record on this golf course," said Poulter. "He has won by plenty and won it quite a few times. We've seen him hit the shots in various situations when he has put himself in trouble and he has one of the best short games in the world – that will not disappear from him. When he gets in position where he's close, he generally holes putts at the right time. He hasn't done it for a while but I think if he starts to hole the putts at the right time then you will see the Tiger of old come out and that's dangerous. But I don't see it this week."

Added Poulter: "If he does win it would be a hell of an achievement. He hasn't won for what, 18 months, two years?" The barren run actually extends to 17 months and 20 events. In this period he has fallen to seventh in the world rankings, the worst he has been rated since arriving here for his professional debut in the majors in 1997. His comeback from his self-imposed, five-month break began so promisingly at Augusta a year ago when he came fourth. It was a finish he was to replicate in the US Open. These have been the highlights in a morass of lowlights.

But Woods claims not to be despondent. Anything but. "Have we seen the best of Tiger Woods?" went the journalist. "No," he replied. "How dangerous a statement is that to make?" came the riposte. Said Tiger: "Well, I believe in myself. There's nothing wrong with that. God, I hope you guys feel the same way about yourself. The whole idea is that you can always become better."

The problem is that, like stocks and shares, you can always become worse as well. Woods has been living, seething proof of this. Again he pointed to the swing changes he has made for his wretched run of results and again he claimed the process to be just the same as the previous occasions when he dared to overhaul a major-winning motion. But this time feels different. The onlookers are wondering whether he will ever reach that level. Even his rivals are prepared to raise their doubts.

They might be, but Woods isn't. "I absolutely want to do it," he said when the inevitable pursuit of Jack Nicklaus's record haul of 18 majors was brought up. "That's the benchmark and gold standard in this sport." "Will you do it, Tiger?" "Uh-huh." There were a few other "uh-huhs", most notably when asked if he felt ready to win. "Which part of your game is ready?" was the follow-up. "Everything," said Woods.

If that proves correct, it will be some transformation from a year and a half of mediocrity. Perhaps the closest the new swing came to being good was at his own tournament, the Chevron World Challenge in California, last December. Woods looked to have turned a corner that week, as he compiled a 16-under total. Indeed, he seemed certain to win when he took a three-shot lead into the final round. But then McDowell holed a 20-footer on the 18th green to take Woods into sudden death and then, on the first extra hole, the gutsy Ulsterman had the temerity to do a Tiger to Tiger and hole another 20-footer to snatch the title.

Woods will partner McDowell tomorrow and Friday. They played together at the Masters two years ago. But as McDowell pointed out: that was then, this is now. After all, only one of them has won a major in the intervening period, only one is in the world's top five. "That was the second time I played with him," said McDowell, the US Open champion. "I think Tiger beat me by one that day. But we're different people now both of us. He's gone through some life-changing experiences the last couple of years and so have I. I've played with him enough to where it doesn't really faze me any more. I'll look forward to it just the same way as I always would be if I was playing with anyone else."

Woods the same as "anyone else"? No slight intended.

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