Tiger Woods expects to contend at Masters and I want to believe it

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Tiger Woods was talking about the state of his game since golf’s restart this year. It sounded like a list of reasons why he can’t repeat as an improbable Masters champion.

“I haven’t put all the pieces together at the same time,” Woods said Tuesday. “Whether it’s I’ve driven well or hit my irons poorly. Or I’ve put the ball-striking together, and I haven’t putted well. And then I’ve had it where I’ve putted well, and I’ve hit it poorly.”

That’s an honest self-assessment of Tiger’s form for his 21st Masters start as a professional. It’s also not what you want to hear if you’d like to see Woods win at Augusta again. Include me among those ranks.

That’s not because I have any special affinity for Woods. That feeling faded as we both got older. Instead, I’d like to see Woods keep adding to his collection of major championships until there’s no argument left for Jack Nicklaus as greatest golfer of all time.

Nicklaus won 18 majors. Woods has 15. Nicklaus was 46 years old when he won his last major, the 1986 Masters. Woods was 43 when he won the 2019 Masters, 23 years after he became the tournament’s youngest winner.

I want to believe Tiger can do it again. That’s why it was reassuring that, even as Tiger acknowledged the shabby shape of his game, he flashed the same defiance as when he insisted he could win majors when everyone figured he was finished.

“Do I expect to contend?" Woods said. “Yes, I do.”

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He cited the late-career results at Augusta for Bernhard Langer and Fred Couples. Langer won the Masters in 1985 and 1993. He finished tied for eighth in 2014 at age 56. Couples, the 1992 Masters champion, has four top-15 finishes since turning 50.

Those are impressive performances for old pros, though they don’t quite fit my definition of contending. But Langer and Couples at their peaks were never as good as Woods. He’s the only modern player on the top tier with Nicklaus, who was older than Woods when he won in the 1986 Masters and then had three more top-10 finishes before bowing out.

Nicklaus is the template for Tiger as he makes a run at a sixth green jacket this year, and more in the future.

“It can be done,” Woods said. “This is a golf course in which having an understanding how to play and where to miss it and how to hit the shots around here, it helps. The golf course keeps getting longer. It gets a little bit more difficult as I’ve gotten older and I don’t quite hit it as far.”

Those words harken back to when Augusta began “Tiger-proofing” the course in the years after Woods overpowered it for his first Masters victory in 1997. The layout became longer, the fairways narrower and the rough rougher. Many of the changes came after Woods won the 2001 Masters for his fourth-straight major championship.

That was the middle portion of a dominant run of golf for Woods. He was so young and so good that besting Nicklaus' majors record seemed inevitable. Then self-inflicted personal problems and a bad back derailed his career at the same time a generation of golfers inspired by him started winning tournaments.

Woods was so broken for so long that it seemed the 2008 U.S. Open, won over Rocco Mediate in a sudden-death playoff, would be his last victory in a major. The 2019 Masters changed that view. Woods wasn’t washed up, after all.

I was there for that triumph. It was the greatest sporting event I’ve witnessed. Fans were in a frenzy. It was elation mixed with disbelief. No one could believe what they were seeing.

Woods was back and so was the Sunday “Tiger roar” that signaled he was on his way to winning another tournament. The people were pulling for Tiger. It made a difference.

“They helped me win,” Woods said. “The support that I had, the energy that was around the property, it was electric that day.”

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

That scene won’t be repeated this year. COVID-19 restrictions are keeping fans off the course. Woods memorably hugged his children and mother soon after leaving the final green last year. This week his entourage includes only his girlfriend and long-time friend Rob McNamara, a vice president for Woods' company.

A Woods Masters victory this year wouldn’t be as fun, but it would go in the record books same as the others. He would add to his legacy as the greatest golfer of his generation and close the gap with Nicklaus for greatest of all time. Doing so will require Woods to put together his best week of the year.

Woods has played six Tour events since the pandemic interrupted the schedule. His best finish was 37th at the PGA Championship in August. Woods missed the cut at the U.S. Open and failed to qualify for the Tour Championship.

Woods had better results in the weeks before the 2019 Masters. But he says he’s in better health this time, which makes it easier for him to work on the high draw shots that he fine-tuned before winning last year. Perhaps that’s a sign the break in the schedule was good for his back.

It’s unlikely Woods will repeat as Masters champion like he did in 2001 and 2002. As of Tuesday afternoon, 16 golfers had shorter betting odds to win. Remember that Tiger’s 2019 victory came after three other contenders hit their tee shots on No. 12 into the water on the final day. Then again, we’d seen similar things happen before when Woods is near the lead

The 2019 Masters was a throwback week for Woods. Nothing about his performance this year suggests he can recapture that magic in 2020.

“As I said, I haven’t put all the pieces together, and hopefully that will be this week,” Woods said.

After what I saw at Augusta last April, if Woods thinks he can do it then I won’t say he can’t.