Thirteen years ago, Earl Woods sat in his Cypress, Calif., living room, dressed in an old-school, heather-gray sweatsuit but with no shoes and socks. He chain-smoked probably a pack of cigarettes during a four-hour interview in that house where he raised a prodigy named Tiger. Your correspondent didn’t see famous artifacts such as garage high chair or list of Jack Nicklaus records taped to a bedroom wall, but he did come away with a memory that remains imprinted.
“If they want to Tiger-proof Augusta National,” Earl said, taking a drag, “then they should make everybody play from the red tees.”
Tiger-proofing was a hot topic back then because Woods was so dominant that it appeared he could turn Nicklaus’ half-joking forecast of 10 green jackets into a reality. But his road to double digits took a bizarre twist. Woods has won but one of the past 10 Masters, his fourth and latest success coming eight years ago.
Given his early brilliance there, his 1-for-10 and 0-for-7 sound like factual errors, if not something out of Alex Rodriguez’s last postseason. Rather, they are indicators that Augusta has indeed been Tiger-proofed – at least in terms of the trophy-stand blockage – for myriad reasons, none involving red tees and many linked to his own doing.
You can look into the Crock-Pot and see that Woods has come up short of victory because of putting, i.e., too many three-putts; because he was still finding his way, swing and physical and emotional health post-scandal in 2010-12; because his driving became a bit more errant as the National got tighter; because his chipping and pitching went through a slump; because others improved, figured out Augusta and gained confidence as he slid; because there are so many more power players now.
And even because he tried too hard. That was the case in 2006, during his father’s final weeks, when he tied for third. “That one hurt the most of any tournament I failed to win,” Woods said. “I knew my dad wouldn’t get to see any more Masters. On the back nine, I pressed, tried to force it.”
Despite the drought, it is foolhardy to suggest Woods has trouble excelling at the former plant nursery. Since his last triumph, he had six consecutive top-6 finishes until his tie for 40th last year, his only result worse than 22nd there as a professional.
Further, any forecasting should give more weight to current form than recent pain. Having won six of his past 19 PGA Tour medal tournaments, including three this year, a refined Woods at 37 is more equipped entering the Masters than he has been in at least five years. His fourth different swing as a pro is finally second nature and has restored power. His confidence is back. His body is healthy, his mind clear. He finally improved his finesse wedge game in the offseason. And since getting that putting lesson from pal Steve Stricker, Woods punctuated two victories by taking a career-low 100 putts at the WGC-Cadillac Championship and leading the Arnold Palmer Invitational in strokes gained-putting.
All that defines a clear Masters favorite but no cinch given the vagaries of putting slopes there.
“It seems like he’s now back in old mode,” said John Cook, Champions Tour star and Woods friend. “That’s trouble for everybody.”
Old mode means fully loaded, as from 1997 to 2009, when Woods bagged 69 Tour titles, an average of five per year, including 14 major championships. The only thing missing, of course, is another major, another step toward Nicklaus’ 18, something that motivates him more than the desire to improve.
Woods, of course, hasn’t collected one of those Grand Slam trophies since June 2008, when even a broken leg couldn’t stop him. Such a dry spell has lessened his chances, shortened his window and perhaps increased his pressure.
Whether he reaches 19 is unclear, but surely his effort will entertain. Also certain is that he will need to play major weekends better than his abnormal 146, 148, 143 and 146 scores of last year.
Thing is, Woods was still in transition then. Some doubts still crept in. They would appear to be gone entering major season 2013.
’Tis irrelevant whether we think there’s urgency attached to his quest. What matters is how much he feels and how well he applies his greatest gift: focusing on just the details of execution.
Given the stall at 14, that might not be simple. He has proved to be human. And humans sometimes hear a clock’s ticking. Or others’ comments.
“I think he needs this (Masters),” Cook said. “This might be the most significant event he has played.”
Until the next major anyway. And the one after that. We’re out of space here, but you can stop counting just shy of 20.