Woods grabs the headlines - deserved or not

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Augusta,GEORGIA - South African Ernie Els comes to the 74th Masters tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club on the back of two victories in March.

Who cares? Quite frankly, nobody really cares - after all, Tiger is back.

Tiger Woods is returning to competitive golf after a self-imposed exile from the sport, having decided to take time off when stories of his extramarital affairs surfaced following an early-morning car crash outside his home.

He last played in November in Australia but enjoyed a practice round Monday in Augusta.

The 34-year-old, who remains atop world rankings, said at a press conference earlier in the week that he underwent 45 days of rehab and was continuing treatment. He refused to specify what exactly he was being treated for, despite widespread reports of treatment for sex addiction.

He said that he was looking forward to Thursday’s tee-off, where he has been paired in the penultimate group with KJ Choi of South Korea and Matt Kuchar.

“I haven’t looked forward to the tee-off like this for a long time,” he said. “It feels like fun again, that’s something I’ve been missing.”

Asked about his expectations for the tournament, he sounded almost like the Tiger Woods of old.

“Nothing’s changed,” he said. “I want to go out there and win this thing.”

But Woods was adamant that he had changed his approach both to golf and the personal issues that sparked such an uproar.

“I have made a conscious decision to try to tone down my negative outbursts and show my respect for the game,” Woods said, adding that he would also show more appreciation for the fans, whom he admitted ignoring in recent years.

“That was wrong of me,” he said.

As always, Woods will go into the Masters as the favourite. But he have to overcome not only the turmoil of his personal life but a recent history in the majors that is anything but impressive - having won the PGA Championship in 2007, the US Open a year later and being major-less last year.

The in-form player at the moment is South African Ernie Els, who won the WGC-CA Championship in mid-March and followed up with the Arnold Palmer Invitational title two weeks later.

Els is a three-time major winner and has come close at the Masters on a number of occasions, but has never quite made it to the green jacket.

Woods and Els have been trading verbal punches, and the South African called Woods’ decision to stage a press conference at the start of the Accenture Match Play Championship “selfish.”

He would love to now blow all the Woods talk out of the water by winning the Masters.

There are, of course, several other contenders.

Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, 20, is hoping to become the youngest-ever Masters winner, beating the record currently held by Woods.

English bookmakers William Hill have Woods as the favourite at 4-1, ahead of Phil Mickelson and Els, who are both 10-1. Britain’s Lee Westwood is the fourth favourite at 14-1.

Outside chances must go to South African Charl Schwartzel, who is hoping to emulate Fuzzy Zoeller by winning the Masters at his first appearance, and German Martin Kaymer who won earlier this year in Abu Dhabi.

Kaymer, Schwartzel and the rest of the field can, however, take some solace from the fact that the last three Masters’ winners were Angel Cabrera (2009), Trevor Immelman (2008) and Zach Johnson (2007), and anybody who put money on them would have received a hefty pay-out as they went into the tournament as underdogs but came out tops.

Play begins Thursday at the Augusta National Golf Club with the final round on Sunday.

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