Tiger the Pied Piper

Whenever Tiger Woods tees it up, the world wants to know. Like Muhammad Ali and the Pied Piper of Hamelin, people follow him blindly. His charismatic genius transforms golf from the pathetically small space newspapers allocate it to big-time sport.

Tiger’s return to the PGA Tour for this week’s Memorial tournament for the first time since finishing out with the washing at Riviera in mid-February is an event.

We have missed him for five long months although he did pop up, fit, laughing, on good terms with himself and playing pain-free golf in a charity match with Phil Mickelson and two giants from a different sport, a few weeks back.

Nobody really knows what his price should be in an exceptionally strong field headed by World No.1 Rory McIlroy (12/1) and the eccentric Bryson DeChambeau (9/1) who has added two stone of muscle and 20 yards to his drive and gone 3-8-6-1 since the COVID-19 lockdown was eased.

Woods won after a long break before when capturing the ZOZO Championship in Japan last October. The one certainty is that if Tiger wins this week, it will be a long, long time before he is 25-1 again. The man is a law unto himself and normal rules don’t apply.

Considering he’s a five-time winner at Muirfield Village, the course Jack Nicklaus built back in the mid-1970s and the perennial home of this week’s tournament, it is tempting to make a small investment even though it is eight years since he won there.

On the other side of the coin, Tiger subsequently shot his career-worst nine-hole score (44) and 18-hole score (85) there in 2013 and 2015 when physically he was a long way from being 100 per cent. He is not short of incentive – victory would take him past Sam Snead’s record of 82 PGA wins.

Muirfield Village in Ohio is the course where, in 1987, Europe won the Ryder Cup for the first time on American soil, but it has not been a happy hunting ground for Brits since, with Justin Rose (50/1) the only winner ten years ago.

Rose missed the cut by a country mile last week when Muirfield Village was also used for the Workday Charity Open so he is hard to recommend while McIlroy has never really threatened to win there despite posting four top-ten finishes.

Maybe Ian Poulter (66/1), who putted like a demon in placing fifth on Sunday, will outshine both but the greens have been dialled up from 11 to 13 on the Stimpmeter since Sunday to make it a more severe test and there is no guarantee the same players who holed yards and yards of putts then will do so again.

What the speeding up of the greens will logically do is to knock any dodgy putters out of the equation. Not since 1957 has one course been used for two consecutive tournaments so it will be fascinating to see if Collin Morikawa (18/1) and Justin Thomas (9/1), who pulled away from the rest of the field and then fought out three extra holes in a play-off, will be dominant again.

As the loser, Thomas will feel the pressure more, especially as he gifted the title away after being three ahead with three to play. On the same turf where he bodged it only a few days ago, it will take mighty mental resolve to shrug that reverse off so quickly.

Preference is for players who arrive with uncluttered minds like Daniel Berger (28/1) who rested last week and is 35 under par for his last eight rounds in winning Colonial and placing third at Heritage, and DeChambeau, Memorial hero two years ago and a winner in Detroit last time out.

US Open champion Gary Woodland (33/1), joint fifth at Muirfield last week, his third top-six finish on this 7456-yard par 72, Patrick Cantlay (14/1), reigning Memorial champion and 4-1-7 for his last three encounters with Muirfield Village, and consistent Xander Schauffele (22/1) are three more for the shortlist.

But it is the marquee three-ball of Woods, McIlroy and Brooks Koepka that the fans would be smacking their lips to follow round … if only they were allowed to!

Memorial was nominated as the first tournament back to have a limited crowd but with the alarming spike in COVID-19 fatalities in various States, that idea has sensibly been put on hold.

Jeremy Chapman has been tipping golf winners since before many of you were born, first for The Sporting Life, then the Racing Post and Racing&Football Outlook.

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