Not following the script


Most sports commentaries, including this column, touted the Augusta Masters as the playground for the one-on-one duel between two golfing superstars – namely Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy – somewhere around the peak of their powers. One of them didn’t quite follow that particular script. However, there’s another man who wasn’t exactly peddled as being one of the protagonists in the Masters screenplay, who is hogging the limelight after the first two rounds. Meanwhile, in Formula One defending champion Sebastian Vettel is apparently acting all wobbly and well, not being himself.
Golf is a sport that pits together generations of athletes, with all of them vying for glory. Those in their 50s aren’t exactly the favourites going into any tournament, but when they do manage to pull off the anomalous run and soar up the leaderboard it becomes one of those remarkable moments that become etched in the memory of the aficionados for ages to come. However, when one of the ‘elderly brigade’ pulls the rabbit out of the hat in one of the majors, the magnitude of the achievement multiplies by manifold.
Fred Couples has performed the aforementioned rabbit conjuring act by cementing himself as the co-leader along with Jason Dufner halfway through the Masters. The piece is being scribed before last night’s third round action; hence, quite a few happenings might have upset the applecart. But whatever might’ve happened yesterday and whatever might happen tonight, Couples’ awe-inspiring display on Thursday and Friday would still leave its mark on this year’s Masters – and beyond.
Couples – Masters Champion in 1992 – at 52 years of age became the oldest player to sit atop the leaderboard going into the weekend at Augusta National. Striking a 5-under 67, Freddie ensured that the hype surrounding all the top players being at the peak of their powers leading into the first major of the season, was diverted towards his own play – which if he could maintain in the final rounds, he’d have more than a shot at vanquishing the Green Jacket.
While Couples might have forced his way into the Masters scriptwriting, the man sharing the lead with him after Friday is no stranger to ruining scripts himself. Dufner blew a 5-shot lead in the closing stretch of the USPGA Championship last August, allowing Keegan Bradley to win the tournament after a playoff between the duo. How Dufner would love to right that particular wrong in Augusta; and if his all-round solid display after the first two rounds is anything to go by, barring a capitulation reminiscent of the one at the USPGA, he should be well within in the mix on Sunday.
Going into the 18th on Friday, Lee Westwood looked like being the man to beat. At 6-under, and being the trailblazer for most part of the two days the safe money was on Westwood being at the apex of the leaderboard come Saturday – this was before he double bogeyed at the 18thto drop down to 4-under and surrender his lead. Westwood along with Phil Mickelson – who came back strongly on Friday – and even Sergio Garcia constitutes a bunch of big names who’d be vying to go the distance. And this could be an opportunity for Westwood to finally throw that major monkey off his back. Now moving onto the pre-tournament favourites, McIlroy and Woods. Ever since that Bay Hill win a couple of weeks back Tiger Woods had been touted as the favourite for this years Masters. However, falling eight shots behind on Friday, after a three-over 75 Woods was the embodiment of frustration and agitation – something we’ve become accustomed to over the past couple of years. Perturbed gestures, kicking away his club, shaking his head, Tiger gave the cameras all that his fans wouldn’t have wanted to see, coupled of course with below-par golf that saw him survive the cut by merely two shots. This wasn’t what every man, his dog and the dog’s best buddy was predicting when Woods teed off on Thursday. Woods is no stranger to pulling off the improbably, or the seemingly impossible, but this time round he would have to deal with a recent past that seems to have taken its toll on his mind, and a young golfing prodigy who is looking good in his quest of extinguishing the phantoms of last year’s meltdown.
Rory McIlroy was one shot off the leaderboard at the start of play on Saturday, and has showed some of the play that saw him buildup that lead before last year’s catastrophe. McIlroy has gone stronger and stronger since last year’s Masters, and with Woods becoming the embodiment of anxiety, McIlroy is now in the driving seat to erase last year’s apparition – something that won’t be achieved till he pulls on that green jacket. Nevertheless, while the favourites might have become clearer halfway through the Masters, the ten shot rule at Augustameans that anyone can win the whole thing if they make the cut.
The F1 season is merely two races old, but in the aftermath of the Malaysian Grand Prix quite a few bizarre noises have been echoed from various F1 quarters; like of Vettel losing his plot, Red Bull stuttering in their defence and of cucumbers. Cucumber is hogging the F1 headlines – or at least the storylines – because that’s the word Vettel used to describe Narain Karthikeyan for the latter’s role in their collision in Malaysia which cost the German fourth position. (Gurke: a German word translates into ‘cucumber’, which is slang for a poor driver.)
Vettel isn’t exactly the most gracious loser you’d see in sports. His collision with Karthikeyan did see the Indian being penalised, but it was a case of both the drivers being at fault at some level. His short-tempered outbursts were also a feature of his win in 2010, which was a closely fought championship. Such was the monotonous landslide in Vettel’s favour last year – winning 11 races in one of the most dominating shows in F1 history – that the German had no reason really to let his temper get the better of him. However, after two not so lucrative races it is being said that the pressure of expectations is already getting to him this year round. It is too early to bring ‘pressure’ into play, but if the German and his team can get their act together, and perform at the optimum, they wouldn’t have to be wary of cucumbers or indeed blame them for their own shortcomings at the end of the races.