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Tuesday, 06 April 2010
Padraig Harrington  (Getty Images)
Padraig Harrington (Getty Images)

The sporting world will have to wait until 1.42pm on Thursday - 6.42pm British Summer Time - to see the first shot that Tiger Woods has hit in competition for 144 days.

Woods, out of golf since his JBWere Masters victory in Australia last November, has been put in the penultimate group for the opening round of the Masters Tournament at Augusta National.

The World Number One, who has dominated the build-up to the first Major of 2010, will tee off with fellow American Matt Kuchar and Korean K J Choi, both of whom should prepare themselves for one of the toughest day's work they have ever had.

But it will not be easy for England's Ian Poulter either. The World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play champion is in the group immediately ahead - and that inevitably means having to deal with a lot of crowd distractions too as everyone tries to get in position to see Woods on his return to action.

Poulter is paired with World Number Two Steve Stricker and also Japan's Yuta Ikeda at the start of an event he hopes will see him complete an incredible journey from four-handicapper when he turned professional in 1994 to Major Champion.

"It always makes it harder to get a big draw," said Padraig Harrington, who is two groups ahead of Woods with Open Championship winner Stewart Cink and rising South African star Charl Schwartzel.

"But then again you have to accept that if you want to be contending you're going to have those draws and deal with it.

"I'm sure some guy playing with me in the Irish PGA feels the same way."

Harrington also said that if he was in Woods' position - that is, returning from a break of almost five months - he would be "a hopeless wreck".

Yet he gives Woods a real chance of being a factor come Sunday - and rightly pointed out that he is the clear favourite for the title.

"I wouldn't be surprised if he was contending, but I just don't know.

"People react differently, but you have to remember that Tiger, of all the competitive players, has a good ability to bring his game from the practice range to the golf course.

"I have a very poor ability to do that. That's why it couldn't work for me.

"It's not ideal and I'm sure he doesn't think it's ideal either. He would have liked to have played a little bit, but he's still capable."

Play starts at 7.40am local time with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus hitting ceremonial opening drives and then retiring. It is the first time Nicklaus has acted as an honorary starter.

Ian Woosnam, winner in 1991 and the only Welsh player in the field, is the first European into action at 8.12am.

World Number Four Lee Westwood plays at 9.40am with 2003 champion Mike Weir and British amateur champion Matteo Manassero, the 16 year old who becomes the youngest competitor in Masters Tournament history.

Paul Casey is in the following group with another Italian, Francesco Molinari, and American Chad Campbell, while 20 year old Rory McIlroy is out at 12.36pm alongside Colombian Camilo Villegas and 49 year old Kenny Perry, who last April lost a play-off to Angel Cabrera when bidding to become the oldest Major winner ever.

Cabrera, of course, is with the current US Amateur champion, 18 year old Korean Byeong-hun An, and Jim Furyk at 10.24am.

Cabrera, the first South American to win the Masters Tournament, admits he spent "very little time" choosing the menu for Tuesday night's champion's dinner.

"It was obvious what I was going to pick," said the 40 year old, who went for grilled ribeye steak from his native Argentina as his main course.

There was also a chorizo sausage starter and meat-filled empanadas as an option. The dessert was a universal dish, though - caramel crepes with ice cream.

"I just want them to enjoy, to have a great time and to really enjoy some great Argentinian meat," added Cabrera, who beat Americans Chad Campbell and Perry in a play-off 12 months ago.

Now he is trying to join Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods as the only players to make a successful defence.

"I haven't had the greatest results lately, but I do feel the chance is out there."

 

 

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