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Tiger Woods now a mere mortal, claims Montgomerie

By James Corrigan

Not so very long ago the only question was how many he would win by. Now it is whether he will finish in the top five. Tiger Woods continues to dominate the agenda here, no matter how open this Masters is supposed to be.

Of course, there are other storylines as the season's first major tees off today. Will Phil Mickelson add further weight to the theory he is the greatest National specialist since Red Rum? Will the mass of Europeans at the top of the world rankings finally end their Green-Jacketless 12-year run? Will the new generation make dogwood of the old guard?

Very intriguing, yet still the chances – or otherwise – of the most famous man in sport command the spotlight. On Tuesday it was Ian Poulter committing what bizarrely some still see as golfing blasphemy in predicting a top five without Woods. Yesterday Colin Montgomerie contradicted Poulter's view. Said the Scot: "I can see him finishing top five, but not winning." Poor old Tiger. Even when they're sticking up for him, they are writing him off.

But then, Montgomerie's reasoning is difficult to challenge. "Whether he pulls on a fifth Green Jacket or not is now dependent on others – and that is not something we used to say about him at Augusta," said the former Ryder Cup captain, in Georgia commentating for Sky. "For him to win he will probably need other players to perform below their best – particularly Phil and Lee [Westwood], who were both so impressive last year and will be very confident of playing well again. It is a case of, 'Welcome to the world of the mere mortals, Tiger'."

Woods may be a mortal but he does not feel "mere". The 35-year-old has cut an assured figure here and the reports from yesterday's practice round were especially positive. The swing changes he has made with Sean Foley are bedding in and he has faith in the Nike Method putter obliging where his trusty Scotty Cameron has recently let him down. But will he have the consistency? In the 17 fruitless months since the sex scandal broke, Woods has failed to put four rounds together. And if he disappoints on that score yet again then at 11 this will be the longest majorless sequence of his career.

"It will be fascinating to see how he plays this week, because when he finished fourth at the Masters last year it was probably the only time we have seen anything like the real Tiger since he returned after all his troubles," said Montgomerie. "I cannot wait to see how he does on Thursday. If he shoots 75, I think we will all be nodding our heads and saying this is another major he isn't going to win. But if he shoots 67 or 68, then it'll be 'Wow! Now we have a tournament on our hands'."

The thought of Woods up there with his nemesis Mickelson is, indeed, delicious. You have to go back to 1997, the year of Woods' stunning first Green Jacket, for the last time when both the rankings and the betting lists had Mickelson above Woods. So impressive was the defending champion in Houston last week, it would have been scandalous if the left-hander was not rated the favourite. This would be his fourth Masters title in seven years. Mickelson has already made this place his backyard. The rest can be made to look impostors.

But this 40-year-old with arthritis is no certainty. Sunday saw his first win since here last year, making it forgivable to look elsewhere. Britain is faring well in the tipping tables, as the game considers the plausibility of America not holding any of the majors for the first time in 17 years. Martin Kaymer, the world No 1, favours Luke Donald's peerless short-game to prevail, and with the fast and firm conditions it is easy to envisage the Englishman overcoming his short-hitting disadvantage.

The 33-year-old will have to break an infamous Masters curse, after winning the traditional curtain-raising par-three tournament last night. No player has ever won both in the same year. "I'm not superstitious at all," said Donald after his five-under 22. "I'm ready to fly in the face of convention."

Meanwhile, Jose Maria Olazabal sees his winner in last year's runner-up Westwood. "I think Lee has the best chance," said Montgomerie's successor as Europe captain. "I was talking to him on the practice ground and I see a lot of determination and desire in him to finally win this major. I think the near things and the disappointments are only making him stronger."

It is a view shared by Westwood's coach, Pete Cowen, although the world No 2's putting is a concern. Butch Harmon, Mickelson's coach, sees this as his major stumbling block.

"Lee struggles around the greens – although he was leading going into the final round last year – because his short-game lacks imagination," he said. "To win at Augusta you have to have enormous creativity and imagination. When you look at who has been successful, [Jack] Nicklaus won six and [Arnold] Palmer won four times, both were great putters. In the modern era players like [Seve] Ballesteros and Olazabal won two each, Tiger has won four and Phil has won three. These players all have truly great short-games."

It is a withering assessment, countered by Cowen's optimism. "Lee's putting is getting there," he said. "It isn't far away." He also gave a nod to another of his players in Graeme McDowell. "He's very, very confident. He was before winning the US Open last year."

The gritty Ulsterman definitely has the game for Augusta, but could probably do without the circus which will follow a threeball also featuring Woods. Regardless, he has to be in the reckoning, as do three other British representatives in Rory McIlroy, Paul Casey and Poulter. "The odds [of a UK win] are better than ever before," said Poulter. "I do believe the glory days are close to returning for British golf. There will be a lot of us on the leaderboard this week."

Britain should hope for more than that. Poulter certainly is. "It's time to deliver," he said. At least there's something he and Woods would agree on.

Masters Men: Three to watch at Augusta

The American: Nick Watney 18-1

Must have the best shout of the new breed of Americans. Does not possess the length of Dustin Johnson or Bubba Watson, or the flair of Rickie Fowler and Anthony Kim, but in terms of the all-round package is solidity personified. Victory in the WGC Cadillac Championship at Doral last month took him to the next level. Resulting confidence will make him a factor.

The European: Luke Donald 20-1

His coach, Pat Goss, says the world No 4 has the best short-game in the world and, while acknowledging Mickelson's genius, it is hard to disagree. The big minus is Donald's lack of length, but the fast and firm conditions should minimise that disadvantage. Finished third here on his debut in 2005 and can, at the very least, contend.

The outsider: Angel Cabrera 135-1

Much of the attention will focus on other former champions, but the burly Argentine's chance should not be discounted. Showed two years ago that he has the perfect game for Augusta and if this rather erratic performer is firing then a third major would be a possibility. Some very wise judges here have snapped up the huge prices.

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