Tiger Woods enters this year's Masters as the undisputed favorite, a position at once both familiar and noteworthy.
The familiarity follows from four green jackets, eight other top-10 finishes at Augusta National and a decade as the most dominant athlete on the planet. The noteworthiness follows from a major championship dry spell that spans the entire Obama administration.
The fact that Woods regained his long-lost No. 1 ranking recently adds yet another layer of subtext. We already knew Woods was playing well. Now he has the number beside his name to prove it.
So, do that mean we expect Tiger to win?
Or are those kinds of expectations incommensurate with a player who hasn't won this tournament since 2005 and finished 40th last year?
And daggumit, how is Tiger going to do?
We'll answer all those questions as best as we can in the slides ahead.
Maybe it's the nature of golf. Maybe it's the nature of Tiger.
More than likely, it's a combination of the two.
But for whatever reason, we in the media love to parse Tiger Woods' mental state. I'm not sure there's a person alive whose been psychoanalyzed by more people who know absolutely nothing about psychoanalysis.
So while I take all the scuttlebutt about Tiger's improved disposition with an Everest-sized grain of salt, I do believe Woods will appear calmer than he has in majors past. I don't anticipate foul language, slumped expressions or angry, post-shot club swipes.
Woods is determined to convince us that he's turned the corner personally and psychologically, and I doubt he'll do anything to undermine that impression.
So expect lots of smiles. Or if things go horribly awry, perhaps a lot of pensive, distant stares.
But no glowering. Glowering Tiger shall not pass.
According to Reaske's research, one of the most telling statistical characteristics of a Tiger Woods Masters performance is how much length he averages on his drives. When Woods is thumping it with authority, he plays well. When he isn't, not so much.
Interestingly, Woods' fairway accuracy doesn't correlate nearly as much with his overall success.
Woods, I would imagine, knows this. Or at least he understands it intuitively.
And so even if he hasn't been driving the ball extra long so far this year—his 295-yard average ranks 32nd on tour—I do expect Woods to find another gear at Augusta.
He knows he needs to get some distance on his tee shots to win Augusta. With his knee finally healthy and his swing finally in tune, I expect him to take some serious rips this week.
It's no secret that Tiger's recent resurgence has been fueled by his putter.
Woods leads the tour in putting strokes gained—a stat that measures the number of putts a player takes against the average putt rate on a given hole—and has sunk a ridiculous 55.4 percent of his putts from between five and 15 feet (also first on tour).
I don't know if Tiger can maintain that scorching pace all year, but I do think there's reason to believe his putting improvement is more than just a statistical anomaly.
In recent years, Woods has been so beset with injuries and swing issues, he's hardly had the time to work on his short game. Now that he's healthy, confident and hitting well, Tiger has been able to put proper focus on finishing.
Or as the great Joe Posnanski puts it:
Well, this year, there is something different about him…and something familiar. He’s making the long putts again. He’s burning the cup on just about every birdie and eagle chance. He’s dropping those testy par putts. He’s locked in.
Maybe that's it: "[H]e's locked in."
Woods won't be locked in forever. But given Tiger's history, I doubt Masters week is the one that locks him back out.
I get the sense—and really this is more hunch than anything—that the sporting public is ready for Tiger Woods to be awesome again.
This has nothing to do with whether Tiger suffered appropriately for his sins, and everything to do with the fact that the world of golf is a thousand times more compelling when Tiger Woods plays well.
And when you've gone almost five years without seeing Tiger Woods win a major—a period rife with rampant hand-wringing and ominous uses of the past tense—you start to pine for past greatness in a way that overrides whatever vague moral concerns you might still harbor.
The crowd at Augusta knows this well.
They also know that Tiger is as capable of winning the tournament this year as he has been at any point since the cheating scandal.
Combine the growing desire to see Tiger win with the present possibility that he will win, and you've got a perfect recipe for crowd engagement.
You probably already know that Tiger Woods and skier Lindsey Vonn have gone public with their relationship.
That doesn't mean, however, that Tiger wants to talk about it.
He's asked the press to respect his privacy on the matter, and so far at Masters week, the press has obliged.
This might have something to do with the fact that he's Tiger and no one wants to piss him off. But I think the aura of Augusta National also has something to do with it.
The people that cover this event have a sort of cultish reverence for it rarely seen among the usually jaded sporting press. To mention something as tawdry as—gasp—a relationship would be to somehow corrupt the green glow of this sacred golf sanctuary.
So while you might hear a blunted Vonn reference here or there over the week, I wouldn't expect Tiger's personal life to be a big talking point—at least not among the golf media.
Post-injury, post-scandal Tiger has a reputation for fading on the weekend during major events.
And it's a well-deserved reputation at that.
Below are Tigers' round-by-round scores at each of the last four major tournaments.
|Tournament||Round 1||Round 2||Round 3||Round 4|
|The Open Championship||67||67||70||73|
The pattern is obvious. Tiger hasn't shot a weekend round below 70 at a major since Sunday at the Masters two years ago.
So why am I not concerned?
1. Tiger was rehabbing his swing.
2. Tiger was injured.
3. Tiger was INJURED.
Woods has been working through an assortment of lower half injuries ever since 2008. It's not only messed with his stroke, but it's hurt his stamina.
So far in 2013, Tiger has appeared far more fit, and it's translated to encouraging weekend scores at Torrey Pines, Doral and Bay Hill.
My gut says Woods is finally strong enough to shake his weekend woes and deliver solid late-round scores.
This slide is less about Tiger than it is his competition.
If you're just now hearing about Woods' re-ascension to No. 1 and assuming it means he's primed to smash the field like he did in '97, two things to consider:
1. The course has changed pretty significantly since then.
2. The other guys in this field are really, really good.
You probably already know about former World No. 1 Rory McIlroy (aged 23), but McIlroy is merely the most visible of golf's up-and-comer set.
Keegan Bradley (No. 11), Charl Schwartzel (No. 14), Dustin Johnson (No. 19) and Rickie Fowler (No. 28) are all under 30, and, as The Wall Street Journal reports, have done a fine job keeping the sport afloat during Woods' interregnum.
The sport is too deep and balanced right now to imagine Woods winning in a landslide.
The timing just feels right.
We know Tiger loves the Masters. We know he plays it well. We know his health and swing have recovered to the point where he's re-calibrating his expectations and taking aim once more at Jack Nicklaus' career record mark of 18 major wins (Tiger has 14 at the moment).
We know that Tiger is the best golfer in the world.
All we're waiting for is that major championship where he anoints it.
What better place than Augusta?