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Now master has come up trumps, pressure on Aussies higher than ever

They have all prospered in Woods’s absence as much as from how he has popularised the game. Now he’s back. Such is his capacity to intimidate, it will be interesting to see how many of those young pretenders can hold their nerve. At Augusta, he faced them all down.

Woods can, like Roger Federer, be a real career-wrecker. During his peak decade, Woods ate away at the prospects, and ultimately the confidence, of rivals from Vijay Singh to David Duval to Ernie Els to Retief Goosen, simply by putting a hard cap on the number of big tournaments they could possibly win during their best years. Never mind all the others who, thanks to Woods, never had a chance. Only Phil Mickelson really survived the Tiger era with his career potential intact and a satisfying five majors to his name. Is it possible that Woods can now demoralise a new generation?

In particular, for Australia’s elite, the clock begins to tick louder. Day, Scott, Marc Leishman and Cameron Smith, who have separated themselves out as an Australian big four, will be competing at Bethpage Black next week, along with Australian qualifiers Lucas Herbert, Brendan Jones, Craig Hocknull and Stuart Deane.

Only Phil Mickelson really survived the Tiger era. Is it possible that Woods can now demoralise a new generation?

The big four are arguably the best collective of golfers Australia has produced. Should they reach the end of their careers with only Scott’s 2013 Masters and Day’s 2015 PGA as their major wins, they might also be rated as the best group of Australian golfers who never quite fulfilled their potential.

Scott is increasingly becoming something of a small-t tragic figure on the world’s golf courses. His frailty with the putter is so obvious, and borne with a stoicism bordering on denial, that it is impossible not to feel heartsick for him. The way he stands over his line with his legs spread, like a would-be gunslinger patently trying to fake it till he makes it, brings to mind a nice actor who never got the parts that went to Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson.

Scott’s putting seemed finally to be doing his head in a year ago, when his overall game – even that beautiful swing – deteriorated, as if he knew deep down that no amount of sublime shotmaking would be worth a dime when he couldn’t get the ball in the hole. To his credit, and emulating the resilience of his mentor/hero Greg Norman, Scott was able to put the humiliation aside and enjoy a resurgence through the past 12 months. He was in contention at last month’s Masters until his putter let him down yet again.


Now 38, Scott has gone more than three years without a PGA tour win and his world ranking of 27 – his highest mark since October 2017 – must still be frustrating for someone of his ability.  To have Tiger Woods storm back to potentially hog the remaining big trophies only heightens the chances of Scott finishing as a one-major guy. His 2013 green jacket, one of the greatest achievements in Australian sport, would carry a penumbra of all those putts slipping by, all those chances just missed.

If you could assemble a golfer out of Scott’s long game and Day’s putting, even Tiger would be scared. Day has repeatedly stated that he will not be happy if he doesn’t add more majors to his 2015 PGA Championship win at Whistling Straits. His current ranking of 15, down from No.1 in 2015, reflects the ongoing injuries associated with a swing so vigorous it can hurt your back just watching it.

Day is an emotional player, charismatic and charming, and if he can avoid such silly actions as bending down to pick up one of his growing brood, he would seem to have plenty of majors still in him, as long as he can win the race against that deteriorating body. Now that Woods has entered that same race, with a reconstructed backbone, Day, who is only 31, can be equally inspired and daunted. Leishman, ranked 22, and Smith, ranked 30, are genuine threats on their day.

Bethpage Black, the first public course to host a US Open back in 2002, is one of the most difficult major championship layouts. When Woods won the US Open at the windy course on Long Island, he was the only golfer to break par. Lucas Glover won the US Open there in 2009, a year when he was left standing after Bethpage Black chewed up and spat out everyone else.

Not satisfied: Jason Day says he won't be happy unless he adds to his sole major, the 2015 PGA Championship.

Not satisfied: Jason Day says he won’t be happy unless he adds to his sole major, the 2015 PGA Championship.Credit:AP

Both Leishman and Smith have great temperaments and short games for a course where disappointment will always lurk and recovery shots will be at a premium. Over the longer term, Smith (aged 25) will have more chances to win majors than Leishman (35), but that clock on Australian golf is beginning to tick louder each year.

The path from capability to achievement is narrow indeed, and it narrows more with time. It might be unrealistic to expect a better yield of majors from Australians.

Norman was world No.1 for six years and brought home two majors to show for it. Ian Baker-Finch, Wayne Grady and Steve Elkington, in the Norman era, all enjoyed one great week at the right time. These things aren’t handed out for excellence, or for dedication, or for long, determined service to the game. They are handed out by a mysterious force that chooses capricious moments when to favour one person over another.

It’s not just about how much you want it. Sometimes you have to want it a bit less. If you wanted major championships as much as these players do, the intensity of that desire could drive you out of your mind.

That said, it would be a let-down for Australian fans if this rich crop didn’t bring home more than two majors in their careers.

Drought breaker: Adam Scott makes a birdie putt on the second play-off hole in 2013 to become the first Australian to win the Masters at Augusta.

Drought breaker: Adam Scott makes a birdie putt on the second play-off hole in 2013 to become the first Australian to win the Masters at Augusta.Credit:AP

Day, Scott, Leishman and Smith are all capable of winning next week. (Which is not to rule out the chances of the fast-rising Herbert, the multiple Japan tour winner Jones, or the club pros Deane and Hocknull. But for any of them to win next week would be as surprising as John Daly roaring down the 72nd fairway to victory in his motorised cart with its disabled sticker.)

But for the Australian big four, the pressure is on, and they know it. With Tiger Woods’ return to peak powers, that pressure has just put on a new face.

Malcolm Knox is a sports columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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