By Jeff Rude, Golfweek
AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tiger Woods won the Masters four times in his first nine starts as a professional. It appeared he might surpass 10 green jackets, as Jack Nicklaus had suggested in 1995. But then an odd drought set in, and Woods hasn’t won at Augusta National since 2005, largely because of putting.
The news this year is that Woods again is clearly equipped to end the dry spell. His performance, statistics, confidence and look say so.
“I’m driving the ball much better than I have,” he said Tuesday after a nine-hole practice round with Fred Couples and Sean O’Hair. “I’ve got some heat behind it, and it’s very straight. My iron game is improving. So everything is headed in the right direction at the right time.”
That isn’t good news for the rest of the field. Nor is the sense that Woods could fare well here playing with a patch over one eye. After all, he has finished 22nd or better in each of his 15 years as a professional. That remarkable record includes 12 top 10s and 10 top fives.
“It’s about understanding how to play this golf course,” Woods explained. “I think that’s why you see older players in contention a lot. They know how to play it.”
Woods tied for fourth here the last two years when not in the best form. He did so in 2010 in his first start of the season, coming out of rehab and scandal, his game rusty and his personal life unraveling. He did so last year as a lab rat, his swing in the midst of overhaul and his short game dull from neglect.
This year is different. All systems appear set on go.
He’s coming off his first victory in about 30 months, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, having brushed off concerns about his strained left Achilles tendon. He closed with a 62 and finished second at the Honda Classic. And his arsenal appears complete again.
Last year’s lab rat is today’s finely tuned animal. Anymore, nobody seems to be questioning his decision to overhaul his swing or wondering if he’s getting the right stuff from Sean Foley, his coach since summer 2010.
The Big Miss might be a book, but it’s no longer a shot in Woods’ bag.
Don’t look now, but he leads the PGA Tour in scoring average, total driving and the all-around category. He’s second in ballstriking and, despite some early lapses on the greens, sixth in putting.
Little wonder then that a relaxed Woods on Tuesday said he feels he is consistently controlling his ball better than he has in a few years. And that he has more “speed” and “pop” in his motion than in a “very long time.”
He might be ranked seventh in the world ranking, but there’s a growing sense that he’s headed back to the top.
“I think I have more shots than I did in 2000,” Woods said of a season in which he had nine victories and four seconds in 20 starts and set more than 30 Tour records. “As far as controlling my game, yeah, I feel like I’m hitting the ball just as consistently day-in and day-out as I did then.”
The difference is that others have caught up. Woods no longer outpowers everybody. The Tour then featured men like Corey Pavin and Jeff Sluman. Today we have Gary Woodland and J.B. Holmes. It's more about bombing that shotmaking. A good segment of the Tour is filled with long-drive specialists who can put low numbers on a scorecard.
“It’s a different game,” Woods said. “They guys are much taller, much bigger, much more athletic. There weren’t that many guys over 6 feet and now it seems like everybody is 6-3 and above. Back in 2000, the big carry over a corner was 280. Now that’s been moved out to 315, 320.”
The numbers that matter to Woods, though, are 5 and 18. He’s eager to win his fifth Masters title. Stuck on 14 majors for almost four years, he can again see Nicklaus’ record 18 with clear eyes.
If he were to succeed this week, he would tie Nicklaus for second most Tour victories, 73. But that’s not what’s in the front of his mind.
“I’d like the green jacket more,” he said. “I know the 73 would be a byproduct of it, but I’m here for the green jacket.”