Real or perceived? Eye of the Tiger back at Augusta
by M. James Ward
The pageantry of any Masters is well chronicled. The first major golf event of the year -- the blooming majesty of spring -- the wherewithal to stamp history with one's name when donning the symbolic green jacket. All true. However, this April marks the return of the man who's been mostly an outsider and now returns to the grounds where in 1997 he forever changed golf and became the world's most notable athlete.
When Tiger Woods tees off Thursday it will mark his 21st time competing at Augusta. His first time back in the competition since 2015 when he tied for 17th. The 2018 return heralds just one prior appearance over the last several years with a tie for 4th in 2013.
The preamble for Woods is a storyline he most certainly wishes to change. His last Masters win came in 2005 -- George W. Bush was then President of the United States. His last major triumph -- 10 years ago -- an epic playoff triumph on a broken leg at Torrey Pines in the US Open. His last PGA TOUR win is nearly five years old -- winning the WGC Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone. The numbers 14 and 79 -- respectively representing Tiger's total majors won and professional wins on the PGA TOUR have remained in concrete -- thus far.
All of the aforementioned accomplishments have one commonality - they are all from yesterday -- in fact, quite a few yesterdays ago.
Woods has made a quick ascension with his latest comeback -- nearly winning the Vaspar Championship in the Tampa area a few weeks back and playing strongly before hitting his driver out-of-bounds at the 70th hole at the Bay Hill Invitational. Nonetheless, Woods did finish in a tie for 5th. Consider this -- at the end of 2017 -- Tiger was ranked 656th in the world -- now he's 104.
But, Tiger's goal is not merely to be competitive but return to the champions circle -- a location he demonstrated with great familiarity and regularity during his peak years. Does he have the game to propel himself to a 5th green jacket? That is the great unknown. Las Vegas odds makers have placed him as the favorite but much of that is attributed to overzealous fans plunking dollars down based on the emotions of the moment.
Being able to compete in PGA TOUR events is one level - doing so again at the major championship level is quite another matter. Now 42 -- Woods is clearly respected but the wrenching intimidation he fostered on rivals as Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh is more in the rear view mirror with the existing younger rivals of today.
Golf is still defined by the one measure above all else -- can you post numbers when called upon to do so -- in the highest cauldron of pressure? Major championships are the rocket fuel that propels players to the level of superstardom. Major championships convey permanence when discussions take place on lasting legacies.
There are players who have won majors while in their 40's -- Mickelson did so at 43 when winning The Open Championship at Muirfield in 2013. But such situations are becoming more and more difficult as the newest generation of players is pushing harder and harder to create their own identities and overall standing in the game.
Woods has attempted on a few fronts to demonstrate a connection to the newest wave of players. The Tiger-lite approach. His past aloofness and utter disdain for such touchy feely situations came from an insatiable desire to not only win -- but drub those standing in the way. Think long and hard of the fierceness on how that Tiger hunted. The Tiger Slam, the 15-stroke win at the 2000 US Open, the wherewithal to avoid a single bunker when winning The Open at The Old Course at St. Andrews, a record 683 total weeks as the world's top ranked player, and, until the 2009 PGA Championship, never surrendering a 3rd round lead in all 14 majors he won.
In sum -- no golfer in the history of the sport did what Woods did so overwhelmingly from the first win at Augusta in 1997 through the 2008 victory at the US Open. In that period of time -- spanning just over ten years -- the body of work demonstrated a tsunami obliterating anyone and anything in its way. For all golfers to come -- that mark of utter greatness will be the standard by which they are measured.
The only person who could cripple Woods was Woods himself. How prophetic and even more so ironic that only Woods could derail the Tiger.
Now the return to Augusta is the final chapter. Can Woods really climb such a competitive mountain? When seeing the police photo of Woods arrested for driving while under the influence and eventually pleading guilty to reckless driving it appeared unfathomable he would regain his footing.
The sports world has always been enamored with the "comeback" storyline. The Tiger who hunted early on his career has gone through a sea change in terms of the man who won at 21 at Augusta and is now double in age at 42. There is a laundry list of questions he will need to answer this week. Can he successfully drive the ball with any semblance of consistency? Is Woods able to handle the vexing putting surfaces that are the hallmark of Augusta National? Can Woods position himself where he has a legitimate shot when the final 9 holes are played on Sunday?
Woods has now walked to another side of the golfing door. What he did is etched in golf's lore -- but that's yesterday's news. What Tiger is seeking is to show that this 42-year-old Tiger is just as hungry -- just as focused -- just as determined -- to go out on his terms. Like Jack Nicklaus, who famously said he did not wish to play simply to be a ceremonial golfer -- Woods craves one thing more than anything else -- the victory. As meaningful as the Nicklaus win at 46 was in 1986 when finishing the final touches for a record 6th green jacket -- a Woods victory at Augusta will clearly be of equal or even greater meaning.
Want a tell tale sign if Woods is really back in the picture? Watch his play at the 1st hole. It's been a constant nemesis for Woods. Only four birdies in 74 rounds of competition. The Tiger-proofing of Augusta now means straighter driving must work in tandem with mega distance when needed.After winning the US Open in 2008 the talk was not if Woods would surpass the 18 majors won by Nicklaus -- but when. That's not on the radar screen any longer. The 2018 Masters marks an interesting moment for the event and where golf stands today. Can the figure of Woods who so transformed golf in 1997 with his then record performance -- command the stage when it counts. The curtain is finally ready to lift -- all eyes will be fascinated to see if the relentless Tiger is indeed out of the Woods.