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All eyes on Tiger in build-up to Masters

Golf superstar Tiger Woods takes aim at a fifth US Masters crown this week amid breathless speculation that it could be the first step toward a once-unimaginable Grand Slam.

”I think he’s the only player capable of doing that,” American Steve Stricker said on Monday as the world’s best golfers began their preparations for the first Major championship of 2008.

Woods has held all four Major titles at once, when he added the 2001 Masters title to the US Open, British Open and PGA Championship crowns he had won the year before.

But no golfer has swept the modern Majors in a single year.

”I wouldn’t be surprised if he does do it,” Stricker said. ”The odds are not in his favour. I think he’s got a good chance of doing it, and I don’t think they are in his favour — if that makes sense.”

Stricker’s dilemma in assessing Woods’s chances reflected two opposing forces at play in a Grand Slam bid — Woods’s undeniable ability against the myriad mischances that can befall any golfer.

”There’s a lot of factors that go into winning a golf tournament,” Stricker said. ”He knows that, too. You’ve got to get your breaks, and he realises he gets some breaks along the way, and you have to have that to win golf tournaments.

”Especially going over to the British Open — you could get on the wrong side of a draw over there and be 10 shots back in a hurry.”

In addition, Stricker said, there’s the chance that another player could simply snatch one of the coveted titles from Tiger’s grasp.

”There’s so many good players,” Stricker said. ”He’s going to have to play so well during every one of those Major events and hope that no one else gets on a run of their own.”

Stricker said Woods was more than entitled to his status as overwhelming favourite to win a fifth Masters title this week.

”As a player, it is what it is,” he said of the pre-tournament Tiger buzz. ”You realise that he’s the guy to beat. If he plays well, no one is going to beat him. I’ve seen him enough lately that if he’s on his game, he’s impossible to beat.”

With 64 PGA Tour victories Woods trails only Sam Snead (82) and Jack Nicklaus (73). He is only five Major titles shy of Nicklaus’s record of 18.

The 32-year-old world number one has won 16 of his last 27 starts and seven of his last nine.

The 2008 Major championship venues also appear to suit him. He is a four-time winner at Augusta, and has won six Buick Invitational titles at Torrey Pines in San Diego, host of the US Open. When the British Open was last played at Royal Birkdale, Woods was one stroke out of the play-off.

As it is every year, the Masters is the first necessary step.

Woods played his first practice round at Augusta on Sunday with old buddy Mark O’Meara, the 1998 Masters Champion.

World number two Phil Mickelson, Masters champion in 2004 and 2006, elected to play in the Houston Open last week.

He finished tied for 23rd, but said the course set-up there offered good Masters preparation.

”It was a good week for me to identify what I need to work on and find out what areas don’t feel great,” said Mickelson, who planned to play his first practice round at Augusta on Tuesday. ”I got out of it that my short game wasn’t where it needs to be. My chipping and putting isn’t where it needs to be.”

Australian Geoff Ogilvy, who ended Woods’s seven-tournament winning streak at Miami last month, warmed up for the Masters with a runner-up finish in Houston on Sunday.

Although the 2006 US Open champion has voiced frustration at the suggestion Woods is unbeatable, he too says the Grand Slam is more than an impossible dream.

”It’s not a preposterous question. It’s definitely on the cards,” Ogilvy said. ”He’s got to play like he’s playing, and everything’s got to go his way. Everything’s got to go his way. But it’s feasible.” — Sapa-AFP

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