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Has the Tiger Lost his Roar?

The 2009 US Masters asks a lot of questions but Simon Noble puts to rest some major concerns as the best in the world descend on Augusta.

The key question facing golf punters gearing up for the US Masters at Augusta on April 9 is whether or not Tiger has gone into competitive hibernation. Woods only recently returned to action at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship on February 26 having missed eight months following surgery to repair the knee injury sustained during his incredible victory at the 2008 US Open.

Woods’ 14th major championship win was all the more impressive giving the full diagnosis of the injury he carried through 91 holes at Torrey Pines: a torn anterior cruciate ligament and an additional stress fracture to his tibia. Woods eventually got the best of the affable Rocco Mediate on the sudden-death playoff hole, following the regulation 72 and a tied 18-hole playoff. Two days after taking the title, Tiger announced he would have surgery and sit out the remainder of the PGA season.

His peers drew a collective sigh of relief. But flash forward and the Tiger is back, potentially better than ever, setting up an intriguing scenario for the 2009 Masters, as Woods continues in his quest to surpass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major wins.

As mercurial as Tiger is, he will take time to come back to his game, but the fear for his competitors is that he could be even more dominant than during his impressive run before his 2008-09 injury-induced hiatus. Woods has been practicing full-tilt for the first time in almost two years, and is coming off a stretch before the injury in which he won nine of 12 events, finishing no worse than fifth in any of them.

US Masters’ bettors should pay close attention to Woods’ slightly revamped swing, and consider whether changes were on account of having three left-knee surgeries in five years. What are the differences, if any? Is it business as usual? And be sure to visit PinnacleSports.com for up to 60-percent better outright odds and matchup pairings before the world’s best players compete for the famous green jacket.

And Everyone Else

Tiger was characteristically mum on the subject as he increased his practice routine throughout the winter months; partially because he’s working through the kinks, and mostly because he doesn’t want to tip off his main challengers at Augusta. In any event, rest assured Woods is finally hitting the course pain-free, which is a scary thought considering his otherworldly ways.

Speaking of Tiger’s competition, the main challengers all have question marks against them. Despite hanging on to win at the Northern Trust Open in February (his 35th US Tour win), Phil Mickelson simply is not the same player he was when he won the Masters in 2004 and 2006, and you could argue he’s still not over the disaster at Winged Foot three years ago. Lefty’s putting has slipped since he won his green jackets in the middle of the decade, and that aspect of his game was a major factor in his two paydays.

Other opponents who figure near the top of Pinnacle’s Masters outright odds list, along with Tiger, are there because of their status with public golf bettors. Vijay Singh is nearing the end of his stay among the game’s elite, and has been caught up in the Allen Stanford fraud backlash (his main sponsor). Ernie Els, like Lefty, hasn’t played with the same vigor or consistency in a few years, and the Big Easy would be a surprise winner.

Retief Goosen has faded since playing his best golf earlier in the decade, while an always-improving Sergio Garcia still hasn’t shown he has the mettle to match Tiger (or anyone) when the chips are down. 2008 Ryder Cup standout Anthony Kim could be ready to win his first major, although most golf pundits agree Kim is likely a few solid years away from being a sharp play in the Masters.

If not any of the above, then who? How about Irishman Padraig Harrington, who followed up his 2008 win in The Open Championship by becoming the first golfer of European descent to win the PGA Championship since the event switched from match play to stroke play 78 years ago. Last year Harrington was playing the best golf of his career and of anyone on tour. But the Irishman has started this season in woeful form missing the cut at successive PGA events in February, leading him to consult influential sports psychologist Bob Rotella as he dropped a place on the world rankings.

Trevor Immelman is a contender simply by virtue of winning the 2008 Masters, although getting the best of Tiger in the final round is worth its weight in gold more so than any green jacket. Immelman shot a final-round 75 to finish Augusta with an eight-under 280 to ward off Woods, who finished three strokes back of the leader. Immelman’s upset came on the back of the highest final-round score for a winner since Arnold Palmer’s 75 back in 1962.

The tough round has something to do with the difficult Masters course. At 7,445 yards (475 yards longer than in 1998) and laden with quick, bentgrass greens, Augusta doesn’t reward golfers playing for birdies.

With the course at the upper limits of difficulty, consistently scoring par is the likely the safest strategy. After making significant changes both in 2002 and 2006, Augusta remains essentially the same today as it was during the last round of alterations just over three years ago. Whoever you choose to put your money on, be sure to get the best US Masters odds available, usually found at a low-commission bookmaker like PinnacleSports.com.

US Masters: Fact Attack

In the bentgrass era (since 1981), 64 out of 104 (62 percent) of the top-three finishers at the Masters had previously had a top-five at Augusta.

Since 1981, 18 of 28 winners (64 percent) had previously had a top-five finish at Augusta and 12 were previous winners (43 percent).

Over the same period, only 13 players have made the top three having missed the cut the previous year; Tiger Woods (1997) is the only winner.

No winner has missed more than two Masters cuts prior to victory since Ray Floyd in 1976 when he missed four.

Since 1970 only one player (Len Mattiace in 2003) has finished in the top three whose previous best performance was a missed cut.

Fuzzy Zoeller, in 1979, was the last debutant to win. Before that it was Gene Sarazen in 1935.

Zac Johnson is the only winner since 1990 not to have played in the final group in Round Four.

All but three of the winners since 1981 (Woods, Langer and Johnson, who all won on their third appearance) had broken 70 in a previous Masters.

Nick Faldo in 1990 was the last winner not to have played in the previous two Masters.
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