Date: April 05, 2007

Tiger’s baby boom

It is not only their first child that Tiger and Elin Woods are expecting soon. It is another major to add to his collection. And the only question in town as the Masters starts at Augusta National is a simple one. Who on Earth is going to stop him? Woods is going for his third straight major victory and is doing so on a course where he has already won four times. Triumph would bring a 13th major and it would leave him needing only June&aposs US Open at Oakmont to complete the second “Tiger Slam” of his career. He is going for an 11th victory in his last 15 stroke play tournaments, a truly phenomenal run that started with his majestic performance in the Open at Hoylake last July. No wonder he sounds supremely confident heading into the event which 10 years ago announced his arrival – in the form of a record 12-shot, record 18-under-par win – as the most gifted player golf has ever seen and one of the most talented sportsman the world has ever known. He has a current rival for that title, of course. And with Roger Federer this week being named as the Laureus World Sportsman of the Year for the third straight time – and another Grand Slam under his belt already this year – perhaps Woods has found the sustained competition his rivals in golf appear unable to mount. Federer&aposs success in the Australian Open in January gives him another chance to be the first tennis player to achieve a Grand Slam since Rod Laver did it for a second time in 1969. But with the last of them, the US Open, not starting until August 27, Woods has the opportunity to do the golfing equivalent before then – and nobody has ever achieved that. After Augusta and the US Open come the Open at Carnoustie in Scotland on July 19-22 and then the US PGA at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on August 9-12. “I haven&apost played Oakmont yet, so that will be fresh for me,” he said. “But I played Carnoustie in &apos99 (Paul Lawrie had Europe&aposs last victory in a major that week) and I think two Scottish Opens there as well (in his amateur days).” “And I played the US Open in Tulsa (2001) and the Tour Championship there in &apos96. I love all three venues.” By Carnoustie, Woods, who this time last year was preparing for the loss of his father, should be a father – if the baby is late there has to be a question mark over his participation. And when that special moment in his life comes, people will inevitably wonder if it is going to change his golfing drive. Asked how he anticipated things altering, the 31-year-old replied: “Sleepless nights. Obviously our whole priority, our No.1 priority, is to raise our child.” “Certainly it will be more difficult to try and prepare. We&aposre going to have a little one and that&aposs going to require a lot of energy.” It is Jack Nicklaus&aposs 18-major record he is chasing, of course, and Nicklaus won the first of those 18 when the first of his four children was just eight months old. The Golden Bear beat Arnold Palmer in a play-off at Oakmont for that US Open victory and it was the start of a rivalry which included one or other of them winning the Masters five years in a row. People are comparing that to Woods and Phil Mickelson now, with Mickelson triumphing in 2004 and last year and Woods grabbing his fourth win in between. Mickelson would like nothing more than new Augusta National chairman Billy Payne helping him back into his green jacket on Sunday night rather than he, as defending champion, doing the honours for Woods again. But the left-hander, whose form of late – like that of Woods&apos other main rivals – has been distinctly patchy, knows there is a distinct possibility of that. He has accepted that while he is good, Woods is great. “He&aposs most likely the best player the game has ever seen,” he said. “If I have a great rest of my career and I go out and win 20 more tournaments and seven more majors to get to 50 wins and 10 majors, which would be an awesome career, I still won&apost get to where he&aposs at today.” “So I don&apost try to compare myself against him. What I like to do is to try to win as many tournaments and as many majors that I can. With him in the field, it just gives it more credibility.” “I don&apost think I could have imagined the impact that Tiger Woods has had on the game of golf, but I sure am a huge benefactor and I sure am appreciative of it.” The 26-strong European contingent – minus Nick Faldo, who is concentrating on television commentary, but including Seve Ballesteros for the first time in four years – all hope they can find inspiration in the most atmospheric setting in golf. Henrik Stenson is their leading player in the world rankings and, with both a world championship win in February and a success over Woods in Dubai before that, there are those, Faldo included, who can easily envisage him contending. Paul Casey, Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington and Luke Donald look the next best bets. Justin Rose, halfway leader on his last visit three years ago, would have been added to that list but for the disc problem in his back which kept him out of the US Tour all of March. Casey has the added difficulty of having to take Woods on head-to-head for the first two days, while Scotland&aposs US Amateur champion Richie Ramsay is paired with Mickelson. It should be quite an experience for both of them, but Casey has reached the point where he is looking not so much for experiences, as victories. The most positive thing he needs to remember is that Woods&apos career record still shows more defeats than wins. Not in the last nine months, though.