x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Woods blocks path to top

Tiger continues to set the standard in world golf and no genuine threat is on the horizon to challenge his No 1 spot.

Tiger Woods is expected to be out in front and looking over his shoulder at the chasing pack at the Tour Championship, starting today.
Tiger Woods is expected to be out in front and looking over his shoulder at the chasing pack at the Tour Championship, starting today.

If the world golf rankings can be trusted to say anything about that the game that cannot be denied, it is that Tiger Woods is the undisputed No 1 without a serious challenger in sight. Woods tees off today at the East Lake GC in Atlanta, Georgia, with his current closest challenger, Steve Stricker, in the Tour Championship at the climax of the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup play-offs.

Mathematically, each of the 30 players in the field have a chance of claiming the richest prize in golf, the $10 million (Dh36.7m) cheque that goes to the outright FedEx Cup winner. In reality, it will be a major surprise if Woods does not claim the title for the second time in three years, although nothing can be taken for granted. That is particularly true in a year in which a little known Korean by the name of Yang Yong-Eun outperformed Tiger to win the US PGA Championship at Hazeltine.

So there is hope for Stricker, Jim Furyk, Zach Johnson and Heath Slocum, the four players alone who are guaranteed the $10 million FedEx Cup bonus should they win the Tour Championship, regardless of what anyone else does. My worry is that, even if one of the four does manage to pull it off, whether they will be able to launch a serious attempt to release Tiger's grip on golf, or even make him feel he has a serious challenger.

Phil Mickelson, who has the game and the mental toughness to go after Woods, has slipped to No 3 in the world rankings behind Stricker, languishes outside the FedEx Cup top ten, and for the time being at least, with both his wife and mother battling cancer, golf is not his biggest priority. Among the other leading pretenders, current world No 4 Paul Casey, No 5 Henrik Stenson and No 7 Sergio Garcia did not even make the FedEx Cup top 30 to earn a place in the Tour Championship. So who can step up to the plate to challenge Tiger?

As good as Stricker is with his short to medium irons, and as accomplished as he is on and around the greens, it is difficult to see him building on his current status as world No 2. His success depends largely on how good a week he has with his driving. He can be a little wayward off the tee and simply doesn't have the power to recover in the way that Tiger does. He is playing very well at present, but as much as I admire his tenacity and all-round game I do not see him developing into a real contender.

Lying third in the FedEx Cup standings, Jim Furyk is a player who makes very few mistakes. He is not a long hitter and that means a lot of the easy birdies available to the more powerful players are often out of his reach. For Furyk to win, every aspect of his game needs to be very much on, starting with accuracy off the tee and with his irons. He has an unorthodox swing but he consistently delivers the clubhead square to the ball and through impact better than any other player on Tour.

This is why he rarely hits a poor shot, and while his putting has been average for most of this year he has found a much better touch on the greens recently, making him competitive again. Following Furyk, Zach Johnson is a similar kind of player in that, while his swing is a little out of the norm, he is one of the game's straightest hitters. Johnson has a strong grip which means he cannot release the clubhead at impact. If he did the ball would hook, so in order to hit straight he turns his body aggressively through the ball and holds on, keeping the clubhead very square through impact.

He has a good short game and can get really hot on the greens. But, like Furyk, he doesn't possess the power to recover from a poor shot in the way that the long hitters can, and needs all elements of his game to be working well if he is to win. It is a similar story for Heath Slocum, who came from nowhere to win the first of four events in the Cup play-offs but hasn't done a lot since then and I don't see him improving on his fifth place.

It's been an up and down year for Padraig Harrington, who will need all the grit and determination he showed in winning back-to-back Open Championship titles if he is to rise from sixth place to win the Cup. He will also need Tiger to finish third or worse, and considering Woods has won five out of his last ten events with two second-place finishes, the odds are against that happening. It is difficult to look beyond the world No 1, who has the ability to win even when playing, by his standards, average golf.

He has the imagination and power to produce great recovery shots, and is an old fashion kind of player in the way he plays the game, creatively shaping his shots to give himself room for error. It is rare to see him select the wrong club and he has great distance control, the best short game and he is without doubt the best putter the game has seen. This more than makes up for his tendency to be wayward off the tee at times, and when not firing on all cylinders he is still a good decision-maker, even under pressure.

I don't see anyone closing the gap on the world No 1 for some time to come, and certainly not over the next four days. Former Tour player Philip Parkin is a golf commentator with the BBC in Europe and Golf Channel in the US