This year will be the first in more than a decade that Tiger Woods won't begin The Masters as the prohibitive favorite.
What a long, strange journey it's been.
He hasn't won a tournament of any kind since 2009, and worse yet, he's looked ordinary most of the time since.
Tiger may be down, but he's not out. A victory at this year's Masters will go a long way toward shedding the very large monkey currently resting on his back and silence the critics that now question his ability to win.
Here are 10 things that he must do to take home the green jacket Sunday.
There is an old adage in tournament golf that says, “You can’t win on day one, but you sure can lose.”
Many people forget that in 1997, Tiger struggled to a 40 on the front nine Thursday. Had he not torched the back nine in 30, we probably never would have seen him break so many records that week.
Only three times in his last 10 majors has Tiger broken 70 on Thursday, and those poor starts have been a huge factor in his not winning a major since the 2008 U.S. Open.
He will need to get off to a good start Thursday if he wants to contend at The Masters.
Four days of golf under the intensity that goes along with The Masters must be an incredible ordeal. Many fantastic golfers have been reduced to mush when the pressure of a major championship is at its peak. Dustin Johnson—a favorite to win this week—shot an 82 in the final round of last year’s U.S. Open after holding a three shot 54-hold lead.
It’s extremely difficult to stay patient and focused on the shot at hand and not get drawn into obsessing over what is happening all around you.
No one is better at this than Tiger Woods.
The Masters is a marathon, not a sprint. Bogeys will be made. Tiger knows this and will need to keep his composure when adversity strikes.
In Tiger’s quest to regain the form that helped him win 14 majors and gave him a strangle hold on the world’s No. 1 ranking, one of his biggest Achilles’ heels has been his inability to scramble to save pars.
In major championships, mistakes are inevitable. When he was winning, Tiger often cited a shot or a putt that helped him save par as the turning point of a round.
Augusta National is littered with holes that are waiting to gobble up bad shots, and if he wants to win this week, Tiger has to be able to turn sloppy bogeys into round-saving pars.
On the last slide, I mentioned the need for Tiger to avoid bad mistakes. When playing Augusta National, those mistakes often come in bunches at Amen Corner.
Beginning with the second shot at No. 11 and ending with the tee shot at No. 13, Amen Corner can make or break any round at The Masters.
A win for Tiger at Amen Corner will be to play Nos. 11 and 12 at even par for the week and hit four good tee shots at No. 13 that allows him to attack the short par-5 in two.
The greens at Augusta National are some of the hardest to putt in the world, and that’s if you keep the ball below the hole.
If you are putting downhill on many of these greens, forget about it. Holes like No. 9 can be great birdie opportunities if you can keep your approach below the hole. If not, you are lucky to escape with a par.
Tiger knows this as well as anyone and will need to keep his approach shots on the correct part of each green to give himself a reasonable chance to make putts.
Perhaps the biggest change in Tiger’s game that has prevented him from winning golf tournaments is his inability to make putts.
In 2011, Tiger ranks 107th on the PGA Tour in putting average. From 2003-2010, Tiger only finished outside the top-10 three times, and never did he finish worse than 35th.
Rarely at Augusta do you get a flat putt, and the ability to pick a line and trust your putting stroke is essential to posting a good score.
Tiger will need a great week on the greens if he wants to win.
In 1997, en route to a stunning victory that set the scoring record for the tournament at 270 (-18), Tiger Woods was 13 under par for the week on par 5’s.
He routinely hit wedge on his second shot at the treacherous par-5 15th hole.
That performance is largely responsible for the last decade’s worth of changes made to Augusta and is a record not likely to be broken anytime soon.
His length off the tee will still give him an advantage over much of the field, and although they won’t yield as many birdies, the par 5’s will still be critical for Tiger this week.
When Augusta National decided that it needed “Tiger proofing” to stay relevant, it did so almost exclusively by making holes longer and adding trees to narrow landing areas.
The result has put a premium on hitting the ball well off the tee. Contrary to popular opinion, that does not only mean hitting it long, but also being able to shape the ball in both directions.
The rough at Augusta has never been much of a penalty, but the addition of trees to an already difficult course from the tee means that even hitting the wrong side of the fairway brings bogey or worse into play.
Tiger will have to control his ball off the tee if he wants to make enough birdies to be in the hunt on Sunday.
Augusta National is a course designed to induce the dramatic. Beginning with the par-5 15th hole, there is no better finishing stretch in golf.
The 15th hole is a classic risk/reward par-5. With a good drive, Tiger will be able to hit an iron into the green on his second shot, but with water both short and long, it will have to be a good one. An eagle is possible, but so is a double bogey.
The 16th hole is the scene of one of Tiger’s—and The Masters'—greatest shots. His chip-in birdie during the final round in 2005 propelled him to a comeback victory over Chris DiMarco in one of the greatest Masters in recent history. The green is multi-tiered, and an accurate tee shot is needed for a birdie to be possible at this tough par-3.
The 17th hole is one of the best par-4's at Augusta National. Famous for the Eisenhower Tree that stands left of the fairway, it is a hole that will see its share of birdies and bogeys. The approach shot is particularly difficult, as the green slopes away at every edge. Par is always a good score at No. 17.
The 18th hole is one that has undergone dramatic changes during Augusta’s “Tiger proofing”. Once a par-4 that required only a drive and a short iron for Tiger, the tee has been pushed back several yards.
This has made the drive on the dogleg right hole much more difficult and will require a long iron to reach the green. The traditional Sunday pin placement has always lent itself to closing birdies, but on most days, par is a great score here.
If Tiger can play these holes under par each day this week, he will be tough to beat.
Once upon a time, Tiger Woods was so dominant that when he was near the final round lead of a tournament there was an air of inevitability to the way he—and his competitors—played that was incredible to watch.
If he held the lead, there was no way he was giving it up. If he was chasing the lead, people seemed to wilt in the face of his onslaught. It happened so frequently that you could set your watch by it on Sundays.
No such air currently exists.
People aren’t afraid of him anymore. People want to beat him.
He has the chance to put a stop to that this week.
His play of late hasn’t been outstanding, but I don’t think he is too far away from once again having that look in his eye again on Sunday at Augusta.
If he does, watch out. This week could be the beginning of the next great chapter in the story of Tiger Woods.