x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Woods facing tough test

Tiger goes on the hunt in Golden Bear country as he prepares for his defence of US Open title.

Tiger Woods is driven by the challenge of overhauling Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 victories in the majors, and there are few in professional golf circles who would doubt his ability to succeed. Whether Tiger can take another step towards his ultimate goal by successfully defending his US Open title in two weeks' time, however, is another matter, and he faces a thorough examination over the next four days at Nicklaus's beloved Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio.

While Woods won the Memorial Tournament three years in a row up to 2000 and loves the course, he will need to raise his game significantly if he is to triumph again this weekend and give himself the perfect US Open boost. One victory and four other top 10 finishes cannot disguise the fact Tiger has been far from his best since his return from an eight-month lay-off following corrective knee surgery.

When he struggled to a final round 73 at the Players' Championship last month to finish eighth, it was clear that he had a lot of hard work ahead of him, particularly with the driver. If he can't start hitting fairways much more consistently at Muirfield Village not even Tiger is likely to be in contention on Sunday afternoon, and it will be the same story in the US Open at the notoriously difficult Bethpage course in a fortnight's time.

Back in the early 1970s, Nicklaus was sitting on the veranda at the Augusta National during the Masters Tournament, and the splendour and unique nature of what he saw inspired him to seek out a similarly outstanding venue for golf in his home state of Ohio. After spending more than a year looking for the perfect site "the Golden Bear" found it, and made the most of the flowing terrain, mature trees and winding streams to produce the masterpiece that Muirfield Village is.

Opened on Memorial Day, May 27 1974, the 7,265 yard layout with 75 bunkers and water on 11 holes became the permanent home of The Memorial Tournament two years later, and has also staged the Ryder Cup and Solheim Cup. Once again, the prestigious nature of the tournament is reflected by the quality of the field, with seven of the world's top 10 teeing it up today. It presents an ideal opportunity for new world No 3 Paul Casey to show why he has become the game's hottest player this year.

Following on from his third victory of the season in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, Casey underlined his new-found consistency last week, finishing just two shots behind eventual winner Steve Stricker at Colonial and must already have one eye on the US Open. While Stricker will be aiming for unlikely back-to-back PGA Tour wins, defending champion Kenny Perry would love to claim a fourth Memorial title and set himself up for another tilt at a major breakthrough.

After surrendering a two-shot Masters lead over the last two holes at Augusta in April, the 48-year-old Perry may already feel deep down that his last big chance has gone, although another win at Muirfield Village may change his way of thinking. For Padraig Harrington, it's been a disappointing year so far after his British Open and US PGA double last term, and like Ernie Else, the Memorial winner in 2004, he'll be hoping to recapture his form this week and at least get into contention.

Nicklaus has always been quick to spot outstanding young talent, and he'll be keeping a close eye on Danny Lee who has already made his mark this year by becoming the youngest winner on the PGA European Tour. Lee quickly turned professional after winning the Johnnie Walker Classic in Perth as an 18-year-old amateur and his first visit to Muirfield Village will be part of the learning curve for one of the game's most exciting young talents.

For one reason or another, it's hard to keep the colourful Ian Poulter out of the limelight, although it is his good play recently and the fact that he drives the ball very straight which suggests to me that he could be one to watch this weekend. Swede Carl Pettersson's victory in 2006 is the only Memorial success recorded to date by a European player, and if that is to change this time we could be looking to Luke Donald, as it really is time for him come through and win again.

A winner's cheque may be a long way off for Jose Maria Olazabal as he battles his back problems, but it's good to see the Spaniard has not given up the fight for a place in Europe's 2010 Ryder Cup team. On the other side of the pond, meanwhile, the Ryder Cup captains Colin Montgomerie and Corey Pavin will be in action today when the Celtic Manor Wales Open gets under way in a dress rehearsal for next year's big confrontation.

While it's a perfect chance for Monty and his US rival to update their Ryder Cup dossiers, both have found some form and are not there just to make up the numbers. Neither is Robert Karlsson, who has not come close to the form which took him to the European No 1 spot last year but has been playing better than his results suggest, without putting everything together at the same time. Now starting to find more of the consistency he needs to make the most of his undoubted talent, Ross Fisher is in the mood to challenge this weekend, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a serious assault from Anthony Wall who is swinging particularly well at the moment.

The Welsh air could also bring out the best in one of my favourite golfers, Miguel Angel Jimenez, who plays like he's enjoying a walk in the park and would love to add to the Wales Open victory he secured on his first visit to Celtic Manor four years ago. pparkin@thenational.ae