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Tiger says Masters is already tarnished

Tiger Woods said yesterday that this year's US Masters would be "tarnished" by the protests due to be mounted at the Augusta National.

Martha Burk, the chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organisations, is protesting against the all-male membership of the club there. That, in turn, has sparked more organisations to protest against the protest. Among those opposition groups are Women Against Martha Burk, an Augusta-based organisation;; and, all of which have threatened to demonstrate when the tournament begins on April 10.

That prospect dismays Woods, who has won the event for the past two years. "I think the Masters has been tarnished for this year," he said. "It used to be the first major of the year and everyone looked forward to it for that reason alone. This year there will be more to it. It would be great if it would all go away and we could just play a golf tournament again."

Woods is normally reticent on such matters and, indeed, earlier in the same interview had declined to offer an opinion on the coming conflict in Iraq. The question put to him was: "You are an American icon, a symbol of this country, do you feel that you need to make your views known about an impending war?"

Woods: "No."

"Why not?"

Woods: "Because I'm not a politician where I have a say-so and a vote and a ruling position where I can make a difference. The guys back in Congress are doing the best they can to make the right decision and I'm not there. I'm a golfer."

Woods clearly felt more qualified to speak about Augusta and he added that, though this year's edition might be spoiled, "eventually it will be resolved and Augusta and the Masters will go back to being what it is".

Woods will, as always, start as favourite for this year's event, but some idea of the closeness of his competition should be gleaned at the Bay Hill Invitational which begins here tomorrow. Vijay Singh, the last winner of the Masters, in 2000, before Woods, is playing, as is Ernie Els, who has made such an electrifying start to the season.

Els has finished runner-up to Woods six times worldwide, something he wants to put a stop to. Yesterday he said: "My expectations have risen in the last year or so. I am setting myself new goals and loftier standards. I just feel that if I don't step up now, I probably never will. I'm at a time of my career when I've really got to go for it, that's my mindset at the moment. Go all out for a while and see what happens."

Whatever does happen, Woods will be ready for it. He said: "I guess you could say we are at the beginning stages of a rivalry. But I think we both enjoy it.

"We have a wonderful rapport with one another. But still, you don't want one of your buddies beating you either. Sometimes that can be worse."


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