SKY SPORTS golf pundit Mark Roe believes Tiger Woods can complete one of the greatest comebacks in the history of golf by winning the Masters at Augusta in April.
Sheffield-born Roe, who competed in golf’s first Major of the year in 1996, believes Woods’ intimate knowledge of the course designed by Normanton-born Dr Alister MacKenzie could help see him pull on the green jacket for the fifth time.
“His comeback has been one of the greatest in the history of our sport, arguably surpassing Ben Hogan, who recovered from that terrible car crash to win the US Open in 1950,” Roe told Yorkshire Golfer.
“He has come through so many surgeries and so many dark moments through sheer hard work, passion and desire.
“It’s incredible to think that he had slumped to 1,029th in the World Rankings before coming back and knocking on the door a few times and then winning the Tour Championship at the end of last year.
“I think a lot of people believed he would win again, but doubted it would happen so quickly and at such a prestigious event.”
The course today is a different proposition from the one Roe played 23 years ago having been lengthened with its fairways narrowed, and he believes course familiarity could be the difference.
“The greens are incredibly tricky and Tiger has been so good round there in the past and knows the course so welI that it’s the one event you could see him winning even if he doesn’t bring his ‘A’ game with him,” said Roe.
“His swing looks much quieter and more controlled. I think he deserves to be favourite and is my pick to win.
“It is a special place and seeing Eddie Pepperell so emotional after receiving his invitation brought back great memories. The letter dropped through my letterbox on Christmas Eve and it was the best present anybody could ever receive.”
Roe qualified for the Masters by virtue of a top-15 finish at the US Open the year before at Shinnecock Hills, which was won by Corey Pavin, and he is going for a long shot and another superb exponent of the short game by naming Phil Mickelson to tame Pebble Beach.
Mickelson played his first tournament as a professional there in 1992 and in 2012 won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am for a fourth time, prompting him to say:“It’s a special place for me, an emotional place… my grandfather having caddied here… the overall importance of the tournament to the game and how much I love the place. It just feels great to win at Pebble.”
Although he is now 48, Mickelson’s opening round of 60 and subsequent defeat by a shot at the Desert Classic on the PGA tour last month proved that he still has the game to win and Pebble would be a dream venue for Mickelson to complete his own Grand Slam of Golf.
“In terms of Majors the US Open is the only one to have eluded Phil. He has a great record there and his recent long-game form, coupled with his fantastic short game, make him a contender in my book, and how fitting a venue it would be if he could add the US Open to his other wins at what is the most beautiful golf course in the world,” added Roe.
If Pebble is the beauty then Bethpage Black is the beast. The Long Island layout became the first publicly-owned and operated course to host the US Open, which returned in 2009, and will host the PGA Championship in May.
The entire first hour of tee times at Black are reserved for those who sleep in their cars the night prior. At around 4:30am golfers get a knock on their window and are given a ticket with a tee time. It will be very different for the world’s best who will be ferried to the course in a fleet of luxury courtesy cars.
Roe was there in 2009 as short-game coach to Lee Westwood and Ross Fisher, who was tied for the lead stood on the 16th tee in the last round before Lucas Glover rallied to win, and describes it as a monster of a course.
“It’s a real brute of a course and definitely favours the long hitters and this Championship has a history of seeing players break through and that’s why I’m going for Cameron Champ,” he said.
“I haven’t seen him up close and personal yet, but from what I have heard and seen on TV he’s looks something special. I was speaking to one of the caddies – and this is a guy who has been on Tour for over 20 years and had some really good bags – and he told me Champ is the best player he had ever seen.”
The 23-year-old has staggering raw power, averaging 320 yards in his debut year on the PGA Tour and tipped by leading coach and another Sheffield native Peter Cowen to be challenging for world No 1 spot “in the next two years”.
The Open Championship makes a historic return to Royal Portrush for golf’s oldest championship after nearly 70 years, and is expected to be the biggest sporting event ever held in Northern Ireland, generating more than £70 million in terms of economic impact.
Roe is not familiar with the course, which is undergoing changes before hosting the event. Preparations and the work to create the two new holes on the renowned Dunluce Links are well underway.
The new 7th and 8th holes will utilise land from the adjacent Valley Course to develop a new par-5 hole, playing down into the valley encompassing that course’s 6th hole, and then a par-4, playing back over its 5th hole into some beautiful duneland.
Both holes will have an
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immediate air of maturity using some of the most stunning land at Royal Portrush. The new holes will replace the current 17th and 18th holes on the Dunluce Links, freeing up that land to be used to accommodate the spectator village and Championship infrastructure.
The most significant changes will be to move the 2nd green to lengthen the par-5 hole by around 40 yards and on the current 10th hole, which will be the 12th at The Open, to alter the line of the hole and extend it by 50 yards.
Elsewhere, the existing 8th green (the 10th at The Open), which was not designed by architect Harry Colt, will be reshaped and several new back tees will be created.
The overall length of the course will increase by just under 200 yards to 7,337 yards and the number of bunkers will be increased by three to 62 in total, still leaving Royal Portrush with the fewest bunkers of any of the courses that host The Open.
Roey feels the added length will play right into the hands of Brooks Koepka and is tipping him for a fourth Major.
“I can’t see many years going by where Brooks won’t win a Major, and the fact that he started his career right here in Europe is one of the reasons I say that,” said Roe, who worked as current Open champion Francesco Molinari’s short-game coach for four years and knows what it takes to become the Champion Golfer of the year.
“I remember my old Sky colleague and Frankie’s (Molinari) long-game coach Denis Pugh telling me that Koepka would win 10 Majors after he saw him play for the first time.
“This is a kid who came through the Challenge Tour, winning three times before graduating to the European Tour where he also won before making it big back in the States. And he’s also won twice in Japan.
“So he has gained a lot of experience playing different courses in all types of weather and conditions and any question marks about him handling a links course in the wind could be answered at Royal Portrush in July.
“I also feel the course will suit Jon Rahm and it’s just a matter of time before he picks up his first Major, but Brooks is my pick.”
Rory McIlroy, who lifted the Claret Jug at Royal Liverpool in 2014, describes Royal Portrush as one of his favourite golf courses in the world and believes it will be a fantastic Open venue. But Roe thinks the huge level of home expectation might be too much.
“It’s bizarre to not mention Rory when looking for a potential winner at Portrush as he’s such a mercurial player, but he seems to have backed off when in contention compared to Koepka who has been really impressive in finishing off his opponents in his Major wins so far.”
Koepka is definitely a big-game player and has finished among the top-15 in all 12 of the last Majors he has played, dating back to a tie for fourth in his US Open debut at Pinehurst No 2 in 2014.
“When Tiger came in with a last round 64 and posted 14 under in last year’s PGA Championship at Bellerive, Brooks still had six or so holes to play, but he knew what he had to do and came up with the goods.
“He must be made of granite, and perhaps Denis’s prophecy may well come true. “
He also believes the Open Championship could be Matt Fitzpatrick’s best chance of claiming one of golf’s big four, although some would claim he already has. Sheffield’s Fitzpatrick won the US Amateur at Brookline in 2013, which, along with the British Amateur, the Open and the US Open used to be regarded as the fur Majors.
Bobby Jones was the only golfer to win all four back in 1930 and thus complete the pre-Masters Grand Slam.
Five-time European Tour winner Fitzpatrick, from Hallamshire, has found an extra few yards over the winter thanks to lengthening his driver by an inch and a new workout routine. His average driving distance in the Omega Desert Classic was over 300 yards.
“I’m a big Fitzy fan. He’s a special talent and has all the attributes required to win an Open. He has a low ball flight from the tee and can shape his shots and he’s just one of a new crop of fantastic English players who would love to win the Claret Jug.
“For me it’s the world’s greatest golf event and the one every young player aspires to win and it’s always a special week for British players.
“I was the same as a kid on the putting green at Hallowes. ‘This putt to win the Open’. I must have holed it a thousand times.”
He looked set to have a chance of making his dream come true at Royal St George’s in 2003 and thought that his third-round 67 had just equalled Nick Faldo’s new course record, leaving him two shits behind.
He then devastatingly discovered that he had not exchanged cards with his playing partner on the first tee and had been disqualified.
Roe sat with his head in his hands in the car park outside the press tent trying to calm himself. When he subsequently spoke it turned out to be one of the most moving press conferences to have been given in the history of the Championships.
“It’s a mistake I’ve never made before, but I had a great day,” he said. “I enjoyed the crowd and the attention. I’ll think about the positive rather than the negative. I’ll shed a tear in private. When I go home and see my kids it won’t be that bad.
“The rules are there to protect the game of golf. Of course I’ll watch tomorrow, but something inside me will wonder what could have happened.”
Peter Dawson, secretary of the Royal & Ancient, described it as one of the great tragedies of championship golf, admitting that the checking procedures clearly failed .The R&A shouldered some blame, but not responsibility.
If the error had been discovered before the players had left the scorers’ hut it could have been corrected, but they had both left and were disqualified.
Memories of that day are never far away for Roe.
“I have actually just laid out the scorecards from that round, and pictures from the week, on my kitchen table,” he said. “I’m going to have them framed and give them to a friend who sponsored me that week at Royal St George’s. I had lunch with him at Christmas and he said he would like them for his office.
“Yes, that week should have been a lot better, but it is history now.”