Tiger roll Patrick Cantlay could bag the Masters crown even if Tiger is on the prowl again
WILL HE, WON'T HE? For the next few days every word written or spoken around the 2022 Masters hangs on Tiger Woods.
He played a full 18 holes at Augusta National last Tuesday. So is Tiger going to prowl the fairways of his favourite course for a full week this week in the company of most of the world's best golfers?
He'll make the decision as late as possible, as, with the Masters being an invitation tournament, no one will come into the field if the 2019 champ decides not to take up his permanent invite as a former winner.
But the professional in Tiger would not be happy to quit the event having played just 18 or 27 holes.
If he starts, it will be with the intention of being there until next Sunday's finish.
It is 14 months since Tiger suffered horrendous leg injuries in a car crash in California. He was 45 years of age then, it seemed like his professional career was at an end.
Especially in the wake of all the back surgeries, which were so painful and limiting that he admitted finding it difficult to play with his children.
But here Tiger is, at least teasing us with the notion that he can came straight back, on one of golf's greatest stages, and play 72 holes in four days on a course where he knows every piece of pristine turf, every borrow on every sloping green.
This is how it will be in the future for the great man, turning up here and there for big events, but not being able to play a full season of 18 to 22 tournaments due to the legacies of all those injuries.
But not even Tiger could win the Masters, having not played competitively for so long.
So who will follow the Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama into the Green Jacket next Sunday night?
I like two Americans for the honour, Patrick Cantlay and Collin Morikawa.
The two men have been inconsistent this season, playing well and contending in one tournament, missing the cut in another.
However, I suspect that for both of them this one week in early April has loomed large in all their thought processes so far this year.
Morikawa is just 25 years of age, but if he wins this Masters, he will go to Brookline GC, outside Boston, in June for the US Open, looking to complete the career Grand Slam.
He hits lots of greens in regulation and when that putter works, Morikawa is an irresistible force.
As it can be for Cantlay, who is a demon putter when on his game.
He won the season-long Fed-Ex Cup on the US Tour in 2021 and was voted Player of the Year by his peers, an award normally given to a player who has won at least one Major in the season.
Cantlay is an unusual story in that he is only now coming to the top of the pro game, long after a successful amateur career that saw him ranked No 1 in the world.
He turned 30 on St Patrick's Day last month, but his career progress was halted by two issues.
First, he played only very sparingly between 2013 and 2016 because of a persistent back injury, while in early 2016 Cantlay's caddie, and friend since his school days, Chris Roth, was killed in a hit-and-run car accident.
It took him a lot of time to get over that shattering blow, but now Cantlay is finding his way in the world of golf, and he was a huge player in last year's winning American Ryder Cup team.
There he took down Shane Lowry in the singles, but Seamus Power had his revenge for Ireland when dusting Cantlay 5 & 4 in the recent WGC matchplay.
Cantlay is a Major winner in waiting and he even led the 'Autumn' Masters of 2020 for a few holes in the third round. He likes Augusta and will not back down if victory is in sight.
Mention of Lowry and Power, my colleague Roy Curtis deals with the stunning Irish challenge this week. We've four out of 70 serious golfers in the Masters.
Add in what Leona Maguire has achieved professionally, and Lauren Walsh's participation in last week's Womens amateur event at Augusta, and these are truly great times for the sport in Ireland.
Who else might challenge for the win? Well the Aussie Cameron Smith has to be on any short-list.
Already a winner of the Tournament of Champions and the Players Championship this year, he is on song and can rack up birdies very quickly.
Having waited so long for a Japanese male player win a major, Matsuyama will not give up his status as the Master Golfer without a serious struggle.
He missed both the Players and the recent WGC matchplay because of a niggling back injury. Matsuyama returned to the links in Texas on Thursday, but had to pull out during the second round.
Beware the injured golfer, they say, but withdrawing doesn't bode well for Matsuyama.
I'll go with Cantlay to win his first Major next Sunday night. But what a show it will be if we only have eyes for the Tiger at Augusta this week.
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