It’s a question that has been on the lips of every golf fan since Tiger Woods announced he would be returning to competitive golf at The Masters this year.
"‘Can he possibly win it?"
That question has often turned into a debate, with evidence flying back and forth as to why the four-time Masters champion can or cannot grab yet another Green Jacket. A debate, it seems, involving everyone but the player himself.
“Nothing's changed,” Woods said in his press conference on Monday, “[I’m] still going to go out there and try to win this thing.”
And perhaps that is all that needed to be said. The 14-time Major champion wouldn’t be at Augusta National this week if he didn’t genuinely believe he could win the tournament.
His preparation for the week might not have been ideal, and the attention he will receive from many quarters is fairly unwelcome, but he still feels more than capable of overcoming all that to find himself in the famed Butler Cabin come Sunday afternoon.
Believing it is one thing, however, doing it is quite another.
With almost six months having passed since his last tournament appearance (albeit a win, in Australia), Tiger will have to play a clever, calculated game—and get a fair slice of luck—if he is to achieve his latest goal.
Control the Transgressions
It is hard to know how much of what he has said in recent weeks and months is what Tiger truly believes.
The impression left by his press appearances since he hit that fire hydrant back in December—from that conference in Florida, to his one-on-ones with ESPN and the Golf Channel, and then his press conference this week—has swung from horribly contrived to refreshingly genuine more than once.
Where it currently lies depends on the individual.
But if we take what he has said at face value, then one of his priorities on the course seems to be cutting out the unsavoury actions of old that turned some against him; the spitting, the club-throwing, the cursing.
“I'm actually going to try and obviously not get as hot when I play,” Woods acknowledged on Monday, in a conference where being a better person was the primary message.
“But then again, when I'm not as hot, I'm not going to be as exuberant, either. I can't play one without the other, and so I made a conscious decision to try and tone down my negative outbursts and consequently I'm sure my positive outbursts be will calmed down, as well.”
This is a significant change, and one that will be welcomed by the traditionalists of the game. Tiger’s uncouth attitude has been the inconvenient truth of the PGA Tour for many seasons, and everyone will be glad to hear that the game’s most recognisable figure is intent on cleaning up his act.
But he’s got to be careful not to go too far.
After all, he won 14 Majors with his previous hot and heavy attitude, so it can’t be said it didn’t serve him well. Retief Goosen might conduct himself with the same unhurried demeanour no matter what the circumstances, but that isn’t how Woods has ever operated—even before his private life spiralled out of control.
The fist-pumps, the steely glare, the competitive spirit—that was part of what made Tiger great. So while he has to temper his negative outbursts—he is, after all, a two-time father well into his 30s—he has to ensure keeping his emotions in check doesn’t detract from his game.
If there is any course where it is an advantage to be in control of your emotions, it is Augusta National. But, if he wants to win this weekend, Tiger can’t allow the pressure from the wider world subdue that inner fire that has served him so well in the past.
Leave the Wood in the Bag—and Hope the Putter Strikes Gold
It’s not a particularly great indication of the shape of Wood’s game that he didn’t return at Bay Hill or the Tavistock Cup (both within the last three weeks) because he just wasn’t playing well enough.
“The reason why I didn't come back and play earlier than that, whether it was Tavistock Cup or Bay Hill, I wasn't ready for it. I wasn't even near physically ready to play at this level, and I needed more time,” he said, after admitting the return of coach Hank Haney had given him confidence to get back on tour.
“It felt like old times to have Hank out there working on my game for hours and hours and hours on end, and that's when I made the decision to come back and play.”
When Tiger says he has been working hard with Hank Haney, perhaps he means he has been listening to one phrase over and over; “Leave the driver alone.”
Tiger has been a horrendously erratic driver of the ball—with the big dog, at least—for many years now, and if Haney is trying to whip his charge into tournament-winning shape on short notice, for now that might be the best place to start.
Despite Augusta’s length (7,435 yards) there are very few holes where Tiger really needs to squeeze every extra inch he can find off the tee. He can make a living feeding off wherever his three-wood and 2-iron leaves him—if it’s in the fairway he will still be able to get home with ease.
Once he starts unleashing the driver too often, however, and brings the "first cut" and pine straw more and more into play, then he will almost certainly find himself in big trouble.
At the other end of the game, perhaps Tiger will have an even greater concern. Put simply, the Stanford graduate will have to hope his putting is on song if he wants to win.
Driving distance and short game prowess might be the two facets most experts point to when it comes to choosing a Masters victor, but all recent winners have also enjoyed magnificent weeks with the flat stick.
Remember Mike Weir in 2003, who couldn’t seem to miss from inside 10ft on his way to victory? Or even Angel Cabrera last year, who ultimately holed his putts more frequently than his competitors when the title was on the line?
When all is said and done, Tiger will need to be his usual metronomic self on the greens this week (he ranked fourth in putting inside five feet last season, ninth inside 10 feet) if he is to win.
Unfortunately, the putting touch is one of the first things that deserts you after an absence from the game—especially when it comes to those testing, sloping short putts for par.
It’s hard to tell how worried Tiger is about this:
“The fact that I haven't really played at all, that's a little bit concerning,” he said.
“I'm hoping I get my feel back quickly, you know, feel for the game, feel for shots, feel more how my body is reacting and what my distances are going to be.
“You know, maybe hopefully the first hole. But if not, please hope it's the second hole.”
Stalk His Prey, but Play the Waiting Game
When you break it down, the Masters is really all about patience. For three and a half days, it is not about being at the front of the pack, but about being within striking distance—making sure you are there or thereabouts come the famed back nine on Sunday.
You can’t win the tournament on the first day, but you can certainly lose it.
Tiger’s a seasoned campaigner, of course, and he will know all this. He will also know that he has never broken 70 in his first round of the tournament in his 15 attempts to date (72, 75, 70 , 71, 72, 75, 70 , 70 , 76, 75, 74 , 72, 73, 72, and 70—wins in bold).
So while the comments and criticism might begin in earnest if he returns a 75 or higher on Thursday, in reality it won’t be too much of a blow to his chances. He’s won from similarly poor starts before—after all, in his breakout victory in 1997 he famously went out in 40 on Day 1 but still ended up winning by 12 strokes.
If anything, Tiger’s lack of competitive practice ahead of the week might play into his hands, as he’ll likely play more conservative "percentage" golf (aiming away from flags, laying up on par fives) until his confidence in his swing is fully restored.
That might well protect him against the many testing traps of the Augusta course.
And, with a likely winning score coming in the region of -10, it is not as if he needs to go low from the opening gate. All he needs to do is pick up a couple of birdies at the easier holes each day (primarily the par fives at holes two, eight, 13, and 15) and limit the bleeding at the more testing holes, and he should find himself within contention.
It’s only when players begin to try and force birdies that they quickly come unstuck around the Georgia course.
With his game still very rusty, Tiger might avoid that downfall almost by default. From there, if he can keep patient and in control of his game, he should be able to swing himself into position for a do-or-die Sunday charge.
Eye Of the Tiger
Considering all the revelations that have come out surrounding his private life, perhaps the most common comment in golfing circles is that the World No. 1 has now lost his "aura."
There was a time when Woods’ presence on the leaderboard alone would guarantee him victory; such was the esteem his rivals held him in. But that hasn’t been the case in a while—confirmed beyond all doubt when Y.E. Yang overhauled Woods’ two-shot final round lead to win the 2009 USPGA.
Maybe his "transgressions" were affecting him, but either way his aura of invincibility has been wiped away.
If he is to regain that this week, which seems to be the case, perhaps what he needs is the stinging criticism of a player to re-awaken the beast.
Augusta chairman Billy Payne gave his best attempt at such a speech on Wednesday.
“He forgot that with fame and fortune come responsibility, not invisibility," Payne said of Woods at the champions dinner, in a rather surprising admonishment.
“It is not simply the degree of his conduct that was so egregious but the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly our kids and grandkids. Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children.”
It seems doubtful that those words will rile Woods sufficiently—after all, he cannot argue with a lot of it. What he really needs is for a fellow player to come out, following in the misguided footsteps of the likes of Phil Mickelson and Ian Poulter.
If a player were to make comments, sometime before the final round, suggesting Tiger cannot come back from his recent issues, that he will never be the same player and that the top spot in the world rankings will be up for grabs, well, that might just get the competitive juices firing in Woods.
But even if that doesn’t happen, most experts believe the Florida native won’t need too much extra incentive to come out and play his best stuff.
“When people ask is he going to win the Masters, I don’t think my opinion of that would change based on his personal issues,” famed sports psychologist Bob Rotella told ESPN this week.
“I think he can get his mind to where it needs to be, to compete. He is about as good as it gets mentally inside the ropes.”
Reading the Breaks
As with every Masters, players need a lot of subtle breaks to go their way for them to end up wearing the Green Jacket. Luck is a crucial, if often uncredited, part of any equation. This year, considering everything else that has gone on in the last six months, Tiger just needs even more of those breaks to fall for him if he is to grab a memorable sixth triumph.
That doesn’t mean his task is impossible. But it does mean Woods is possibly the only sportsman in the world who could pull it off.