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Spotlight on Tiger in his hunt for more incredible Major joy

 

The Master: Tiger Woods celebrates his victory at Augusta last month
The Master: Tiger Woods celebrates his victory at Augusta last month

By Phil Casey

For the second Major in succession, membership of golf's most elite club is up for grabs in the US PGA Championship at Bethpage, where Jordan Spieth seeks the victory he needs to complete the career Grand Slam.

But all eyes next week will once again be on the last man to join that club as Tiger Woods targets back-to-back Major titles and the 16th of his career to edge closer to Jack Nicklaus' record tally of 18.

That record looked out of sight two years ago as Woods needed a nerve block simply to attend the Champions Dinner before the 2017 Masters, where he told Nicklaus "I'm done" after three operations had failed to solve chronic back problems.

Later that night, Woods flew to London to see a specialist and subsequently underwent the spinal fusion surgery which saved his career.

But the following month, with five prescription drugs in his system, he was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence when he was found asleep at the wheel of his car and later pleaded guilty to reckless driving.

Woods spent 11 months on probation but returned to competitive golf at the end of November and the results soon followed, most notably when he led The Open with eight holes to play at Carnoustie and then finished runner-up in the US PGA.

The 43-year-old went on to win the season-ending Tour Championship and then, of course, came last month's unforgettable Masters triumph, 14 years after his last win at Augusta National and 11 since his most recent Major in the 2008 US Open.

After opting not to contest the Wells Fargo Championship, Woods will not have played competitively between the Masters and US PGA, and concerns were raised about his fitness when he was filmed walking gingerly on his way to a television interview.

"Nobody should lose their mind over this," his agent Mark Steinberg insisted, although there will be thousands of fans noisily losing theirs over the prospect of Woods winning for the second time on the Black Course at Bethpage State Park on Long Island.

It was there in the 2002 US Open that Woods led from start to finish on a public course which warns visitors that it is "extremely difficult" and recommended "only for highly skilled golfers", his three-under-par total making him the only man to break par.

He was also sixth in the same event when it returned in 2009 but will not have such fond memories of his last visit in 2012 after aggravating knee and back injuries en route to a tie for 38th at The Barclays.

At that point Spieth was still four months from starting a professional career which brought almost instant success, the 25-year-old winning on the PGA Tour in his debut season and going on to claim the Masters and US Open in 2015 before missing out on a play-off for The Open by a single shot.

Two years later, Spieth got his hands on the Claret Jug at Royal Birkdale to complete the third leg of the career Grand Slam, but that remains his last victory to date, and the former World No.1 dropped to 34th after finishing 21st in the Masters - his worst finish ever at Augusta.

Rivals to Woods are therefore more likely to come from elsewhere and a 7,436-yard par-70 is set to favour long hitters like defending champion Brooks Koepka, World No.1 Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, who was unable to complete his own career Grand Slam at Augusta.

McIlroy was 20 and playing just his third Major in the 2009 US Open, but finished in a tie for 10th after a closing 68, a score beaten only by Ian Poulter's 67.

His performances on the same course in The Barclays in 2012 and 2016 were nothing to write home about and the Ulsterman knows his long game will need to be better than at Augusta, where he ranked 58th for driving accuracy.

Woods ranked slightly higher at 47th but accuracy was never his strongest suit and none of the crowd at Bethpage will care about such statistics if the first US PGA to be staged in May since 1949 ends with Woods celebrating more improbable Major glory.

Five contenders for US PGA success

Tiger Woods

Woods' emotional victory in the Masters last month was his first Major in 11 years. A lot of the focus was on the 43-year-old's comeback following spinal fusion surgery, but the manner of the win was equally important. The final round was a masterclass in how to win under pressure - playing safe on the 12th when his rivals found the water, making birdies on the two par-fives on the back nine and then using the slope on the 16th to make another. A closing 70 was nothing special, but it was what was needed and similar tactics will be required at Bethpage, where Woods was the only player to finish under par in winning the 2002 US Open.

Brooks Koepka

Defending champion Koepka was one of the three players to finish a shot behind Woods at Augusta. Since the 2016 US PGA, Koepka's form in Majors reads 4-11-1-6-13-1-39-1-2 and the 29-year-old seems to have recovered from a weight-loss regimen which left him "out of sorts". With a rain-soaked course set to play into the hands of long hitters, Koepka will have a distinct advantage.

Rory McIlroy

McIlroy's victory in the Players Championship made him the bookies' favourite for the Masters but the four-time Major winner was never in contention after an opening 73 and his tie for 21st was his worst finish at Augusta since 2013. McIlroy then finished eighth in the Wells Fargo Championship after a closing 73 but is another who should be suited to conditions at Bethpage, which could resemble those at the 2011 US Open which he won by eight shots. He finished 10th at Bethpage two years earlier.

Phil Mickelson

Could be forgiven for focusing more on the US Open given he needs that to complete the career Grand Slam, but his record at Bethpage is superb. The left-hander finished runner-up there in 2002 and 2009 and was also 13th in The Barclays in 2016. Has missed the cut in three of his last five events but won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am this season.

Dustin Johnson

Has never rediscovered the form which saw him move to World No.1 for the first time in 2017 and follow it with further success in the WGC-Mexico Championship and WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. However, the big-hitting American has won twice this season and was runner-up at the Masters, while he was also third at Bethpage in The Barclays in 2012.

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