The Valspar Championship has never been one of the PGA Tour’s most prestigious events. Initially, it was the Tampa Bay Classic and up against the Presidents Cup.
For a time it played second fiddle to the WGC-American Express Championship. When its sponsors, Chrysler, pulled out, it looked as if it would fold. Valspar, the paint manufacturer, came along in 2013, since when it has been relatively stable. Unexceptional, but stable.
Then this year, a strange thing happened. On March 11, the day of its final round, the Valspar Championship recorded the highest ratings for any golf tournament outside the majors in five years. At the same time, the streaming service, PGA Tour Live, crashed due to ‘unprecedented traffic’. Tiger Woods had returned and America is mad for it again.
Tiger Woods is back at Augusta National and all eyes will be on him once Thursday arrives
Back, and now one of the favourites for the Masters. Back, and with expectation levels soaring, a man who a year ago could not sit through the traditional champions dinner has been installed as a leading fancy to win it, his first major victory in a decade.
Good news for golf, good news for Donald Trump, too.
Woods is one of those figures synonymous, regardless of his personal politics, with making America great again. If the miracle happens, expect the President to be tweeting his way into the reflected glory come Sunday.
Woods on his game lifts the national mood. At the peak of his career, a win for him on Sunday moved the financial markets in a positive way on Monday. When Woods did well, America arrived for work feeling empowered, confident, bullish and ready to buy, buy, buy.
When Woods plays in tournaments more and more people stop to see how he is playing
A favourite is a reflection of the market, not necessarily the reality, but America appears to be investing heavily in this sporting resurrection. Whether Woods should be shorter-priced than Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy or Bubba Watson is another matter. He is, by his own admission, a walking miracle. A man who had spinal fusion back surgery, not to play competitive golf again but merely to exist without opiates.
Squirming his way through Danny Willett’s champions dinner at Augusta last year, and weeks away from surgery that he hoped might give him a last swing at normality, he confided in Jack Nicklaus ‘I’m done’.
Yet what sent ratings off the dial for the Valspar last month was the sight of Woods, not just un-done, but in contention. He finished tied second behind Paul Casey, then tied fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, his last tournament before coming to Augusta. It cannot be underestimated how excited America is by this new chapter. And America was always excited about Woods.
The 2001 US Open was played at Southern Hills, Tulsa, a monster of a course. In response to the advances in equipment technology, the US Golf Association demanded a new level of precision and length.
The par-five fifth was 642 yards long. The total course distance was 6,973 yards. The rough was punishing, the greens devilishly fast. Miss on the wrong side and there was no chance of saving par. Tom Lehman reached for a baseball analogy. ‘Playing this golf course,’ he said, ‘is like trying to hit a 90mph knuckleball.’
Woods, aged 42, has won 14 major titles, including four victories at Augusta National
Woods arrived fresh from completing the Tiger Slam at Augusta, with all four major trophies on his coffee table. After three rounds he was 10 shots off the lead and tied for 23rd place. Woods had never won a major without leading or being tied for it going into the final day.
Chasing wasn’t his thing and this was a course that would not respond to desperation and attempts to force a low score through sheer will. Equally, the leaderboard included some of the greatest golfers of the time. Retief Goosen, Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson, David Duval, Jim Furyk, Stewart Cink and Davis Love III were all ahead.
If one blew up — as joint-leader Cink did — it was unlikely 22 others would follow. So Woods had no chance, as good as he was. Yet that morning, in the face of all rationality, every televised broadcast began the same way. Can Tiger do it? they asked. Will this be his fifth-straight major? Are we going to see golf’s greatest comeback?
Of course, they were not. Goosen won, after an 18-hole play-off with Mark Brooks, Woods trailing in a creditable tied 12th having shot 69. Yet those questions haven’t changed much in 17 years. Once again, America is asking whether it is going to witness golf’s greatest comeback — that of a man it was feared might end up in a wheelchair, or unable to swing a club, let alone return to competition.
So set aside the dream, for a moment. Just to play, really, is Woods’s achievement. A year ago, awaiting another operation on April 19, he was contemplating quite the saddest retirement.
Elite athletes who compete in aerobic sports know there will come a time when they cannot play again. Some continue in exhibition matches — and Sir Trevor Brooking turned out for many years in Sunday football — but most accept their careers will be short and have a finite end.
It is not the same for golfers. They can play competitively for many years on the senior circuit and, even when that is over, have 18 holes with friends.
Woods was looking at a lifetime without even that succour. He could dine at golf tournaments, he could talk about golf tournaments, he could watch golf tournaments and be feted wherever he went, but he couldn’t hit a ball. It must have been killing him.
So, in that respect, anyone who loves sport must be buoyed at the sight of his return. Wherever he finishes, just the fact that Woods may be able to enjoy what others in his trade take for granted is a source of great comfort.
He didn’t arrive at Augusta until Monday, but has already played practice rounds there on March 22 and 23, getting a feel for a course that was once his second home yet has changed, even since he last competed there in 2015.
Woods arrived at Augusta National on Monday before signing autographs for his supporters
He played with a local caddie, Jay Thacker, and took his time — no doubt mindful that on his last visit he would have barely been able to tee up.
Yet Mark Twain’s good walk, no longer ruined, is not enough. His public, his countrymen in particular, want more. They want the dream, they want the Hollywood ending. They want Tiger in his final round red, making America great again.
‘The one thing I would say about Tiger Woods is you can never say never,’ said Butch Harmon, his former coach. ‘Should he be favourite? No. Do I think he is going to win? No, I don’t. But would I like to see him win? Damn right I would.’
Harmon is now coach to Johnson and Rickie Fowler, two golfers who have equally high hopes of wearing the green jacket on Sunday. But that’s how much America wants it, for Tiger, and for themselves. That’s how much weight rests once again on his shoulders. No wonder he got a bad back.
Poulter’s back to his best
It was an excellent weekend for sport; a unification fight won by a British heavyweight champion, Manchester City’s outstanding performance at Everton, a landmark win for Tottenham at Chelsea — but, despite this, was there anything finer than Ian Poulter’s victory in the Houston Open?
To win from 123rd place on the first-round leaderboard is unprecedented in PGA Tour history — as was Poulter’s first strokeplay victory in the United States. That he holed a 20-foot putt to force a play-off with Beau Hossler — won on the first hole — merely added to the drama and the sense Poulter had recaptured the famous spirit of Medinah as he claimed the last berth at this year’s US Masters.
That his back was to the wall in getting to Augusta makes it one of the greatest victories by a British golfer outside the majors. It is unthinkable that he will not line up against America at the Ryder Cup in September, too. They won’t forget this in a hurry.
Ian Poulter won the last invite to the Masters when he won the Houston Open on Sunday
When Dele Alli came into the penalty box for Tottenham’s first corner, the crowd in the Shed End made their feelings plain. One gentleman was particularly persistent.
The same foul insult, over and over. Alli just stared him down. Sought him out, amid the angry faces, and locked eyes, utterly unfazed. Then he went about the business of condemning Chelsea to the Europa League. That is what the best players do. They take it on. The pressure, the vitriol.
When Alli scored, in front of those same fans, and mockingly cupped a hand to one ear, the abuse and fury rose again. It’s never just a bit of banter when the players do it, apparently.
After the game, Mauricio Pochettino spoke of Alli winning back the confidence of his England manager with performances like that, but Gareth Southgate didn’t leave him out of two friendly matches because he doesn’t rate him; he left him out because he does.
For that reason, if he feels Alli is not sufficiently switched on, he has to find a way to bring him back.
With other players it doesn’t matter. They weren’t going to Russia anyway; or they were on the fringe. Alli is integral, not least for his relationship with Spurs team-mate Harry Kane.
Integral, but replaceable if he is not as focused as Southgate wishes.
Leaving him out was a way of delivering that message. Pochettino would do the same, in similar circumstances, for Tottenham. Anyway, it appears to have worked.
Dele Alli’s celebration for his first goal got a reaction from the Chelsea fans on Sunday
You can’t deny Jose has improved United
Jose Mourinho most certainly did not come to Manchester to finish second — to anyone, let alone Manchester City. Mourinho is right, though, in saying if Manchester United cannot win the League, they need to be the best of the rest. Right, too, in saying they are better than last season.
After 31 games, they have five more wins, 12 more goals, a better goal difference by 13 and eight more points.
It’s not necessarily League-winning form — last season, 68 points from 31 games would have put them where Tottenham were, seven points off Chelsea, although it would have led the table at the same stage the season Leicester won — but it is most certainly an improvement.
Develop by the same margin next season and United will at least be in the mix.
If Manchester City win the League by beating their neighbours on Saturday, expect the usual doom-laden predictions around the Mourinho era. But he is getting there; just not as quickly as he, or anyone at Manchester United, had hoped.
Everton’s stats point to a total tactical failure
Percentage possession, as we know, can be a rather useless statistic.
So much depends not just on having the ball but where a team have it and what they do with it. Possession can be racked up with meaningless meandering in neutral areas, compared to a short burst of counter-attacking passes that has real effect.
Leicester did not win the Premier League with lengthy periods of possession and Chelsea’s victorious Champions League run was a triumph for working successfully without the ball. Some possession statistics, however, are irrefutably bad.
For Everton to have just 18 per cent possession at home against Manchester City on Saturday was atrocious, not least because they were chasing the game from the fourth minute when Leroy Sane scored. If the plan was to sit back and absorb pressure, there is mitigation — but Everton were two down after 12 minutes and three behind after 37.
There are no tactics that allow a team to pull back a three-goal deficit without the ball. This was a huge failure tactically, technically and in terms of ambition.
Manchester City are very good; they should not, however, be made to look that good.
Sam Allardyce’s Everton had just 18 per cent possession in their game with Manchester City
Bayern killing the Bundesliga
Der Klassiker ended with a 6-0 win for Bayern Munich over supposed rivals Borussia Dortmund on Saturday. The aggregate scoreline in the Bundesliga between the teams this season is 9-1 and Dortmund’s last three visits to Munich in the league have ended 6-0, 4-1 and 5-1.
That Robert Lewandowski, once a Dortmund player in the days when the gap between Munich and the rest was not insurmountable, scored a hat-trick merely adds insult to injury. Munich are very bitter about the financial strength and influence of the Premier League, but will not accept the harm their rampant economic growth and domination have done to the Bundesliga.
Munich’s rise has come at the expense of the domestic competition, and wider interest in it.
There is nothing classic about a predictable league and, as the years go by, fewer reasons to watch it.
Which Arsenal will turn up?
You never know who is going to turn up at Arsenal these days. Not just the crowd, but the players, too.
Will it be the team who took AC Milan apart in the first leg of their Europa League last-16 game, or the team who laboured so horribly against Stoke on Sunday?
Arsenal’s inconsistency is one of Arsene Wenger’s biggest failings and the disillusionment can be seen in the empty seats. If this was a coordinated boycott it would not be as worrying, but instead it appears that thousands of Arsenal supporters have, independently, found something better to do with their time.
They might be back for the CSKA Moscow game on Thursday, because the Europa League represents the last hope of a trophy and a place in the Champions League, but what team will they see? Arsenal are quite capable of putting the tie away in the first leg, or losing and going out with a whimper.
Elite footballers are not supposed to be capricious. Arsenal, at home, should always be a banker.
Arsene Wenger must make sure his side delivers on Thursday night in the Europa League