Woods is closing in on the all-time victory record held by Sam Snead, and his early success this season is being touted as a sign of things to come in Augusta this month.
The case for a fifth green jacket for Tiger will be presented in a majority of pre-tournament forecasts. But most of those will be narrowly focused on his three victories, and not the broad picture.
Woods hasn’t won a major since 2008. He hasn’t won the Masters since 2005. No matter. He’s still the strong favorite every time he tees off, especially when he appears to be on a roll.
The last time he truly lived up to his iconic name and mythology was the 2008 U.S. Open, when he scored his legendary 91-hole, one-legged victory at Torrey Pines. He still has his name, but the mythology of Tiger Woods essentially ended when he coughed up a final round lead in the PGA Championship at Hazeltine after entering the week 14-0 when leading a major after 54 holes.
Woods comes into the 2013 Masters following the poorest showing in his professional career in Augusta. He tied for 40th last year in an event in which he had never finished lower than 22nd as a pro, following seven straight showings of 6th or better.
The last title for Woods at Augusta National came in 2005, when he won on the first playoff hole against Chris DiMarco. The following year, the course was stretched out to its current length of almost 7,450 yards, and Woods hasn’t won the Masters since.
In the first six years after Augusta National was lengthened to its current yardage, Woods placed 3rd, 2nd, 2nd, 6th, 4th and 4th, something of a departure from the track record he had established in his first nine years as a pro in the Masters.
Woods won four times between 1997 and 2005, with his winning scores ranging from 18-under 270 to 12-under 276. The five years he didn’t win he was a combined 2-under and never seriously contended.
After establishing a pattern of either victory or mediocrity (by his standards), Woods became a remarkably consistent contender over the next half-dozen years, finishing between two and five strokes behind the champion every year.
Although he mounted a few early Sunday charges, the only time he was a serious factor late in the final round was 2007, when he let an excellent opportunity to add a fifth green jacket to his closet slip away with an undistinguished performance. Woods has never won a major when he wasn’t on top after 54 holes, and the ’07 Masters was among his most prominent failures.
Woods came into the 2012 Masters off a dominant win at Bay Hill, his first PGA victory since he won six times in 2009, including each “tune-up” start immediately preceding the four majors. He followed his Bay Hill triumph with the T40 showing in the Masters, and contended in just one of the other three majors, tying for 3rd in the British Open, four shots behind Ernie Els.
With six wins in the past year, Woods has regained the No. 1 spot in the world rankings and has been pronounced as being “back” after winless seasons in 2010 and ’11. But the Tiger Woods of 2013 is not the Tiger Woods of 1997-2009 (e.g., his forgettable showing in the Honda Classic in between his two recent wins), and victories on courses where he has a long history of success (Torrey Pines, Bay Hill, and Doral among them) is not necessarily a sign that he is about to dominate golf as he did for more than a decade.
Woods’ early season dominance has largely been a product of some sensational putting on greens where he has a history of success. In his other stroke play start, he was a non-factor at PGA National, a tougher course than the three on which he won.
In the wake of his equipment change during golf’s brief off-season, the early 2013 struggles of Rory McIlroy have been the overwhelming non-Tiger topic in the golf universe, but Tiger’s three wins have returned McIlroy to secondary status.
With Woods mostly absent from major championship contention the past two years due to poor play and injury, Mcllroy had taken over the lead actor role with two wins and one memorable defeat. He quickly recovered from his 2011 back nine Sunday meltdown at Augusta National, winning the U.S. Open 10 weeks later and adding a second runaway major title last year in the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island.
McIlroy may very well re-capture his self-confidence and game in time for the Masters, but that’s a pretty tall task for someone his age, even one with enormous ability. McIlroy waited until the back nine on Sunday to shoot himself out of contention in 2011. He only made it through 36 holes last year in Augusta before collapsing, and can’t be coming into this year’s tournament with many positive thoughts.
With McIlroy not at the top of his game, the main challenger to Woods is again Phil Mickelson, who has a marvelous Masters record – three wins since 2004, seven other career top 5 finishes – and easily could have captured a fourth green jacket last year.
Mickelson has a win this season and was just a few shots behind Woods at Doral. But in his early 40s with a game as erratic as ever (missed cut at Bay Hill), he is a little suspect as a prime contender, especially given the recent list of Masters champions.
With the exception of Mickelson’s victory in 2010, the tournament winners since Augusta National’s last major changes have been players who were not near the top of the list of potential contenders.
Only one – Angel Cabrera in 2009 – had a major title on his resume, and he had all but disappeared from golf’s radar screen since winning the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 2007.
Zach Johnson, the somewhat surprising ’07 winner, followed in the footsteps of Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo, Mark O’Meara, Ben Crenshaw and Jose Maria Olazabal, taming Augusta National without a modern power game. Augusta National is more than 500 yards longer than it was a little over a decade ago, but Johnson and Mike Weir (2003) have both won since the course has been lengthened.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is 2012 Masters champion Bubba Watson, who became the third power player in the last four years to win in Augusta. Bombers not known for their short game skill have won far fewer Masters than short to average length hitters with deft putting touches, but Watson and Cabrera have demonstrated that a longer Augusta National can still be overpowered.
Somewhere in between are Trevor Immelman (2008) and Charl Schwartzel (2011), two of seven South Africans to either win or finish 2nd in the Masters since ’04.
Recent form coming into the Masters has been mostly a non-issue. Mickelson’s last two wins in Augusta followed one of the PGA Tour’s most amazing tournament efforts ever (2006 at TPC Sugarloaf) and a string of nondescript showings (2010). Immelman and Cabrera had mostly miserable results pre-Augusta the years they won. Johnson and Watson both had some strong showings in recent tournaments, but Watson was less than a month removed from losing a final round lead at Doral.
Past success in the Masters (or lack thereof) has also been irrelevant for most of the recent winners. Other than Cabrera, the rest of the champions over the past decade not named Woods or Mickelson had little on their mostly minimal Masters resumes to point to them as potential winners.
A lot of what has been written about the Masters over the years has been proven to be demonstrably wrong. You don’t have to bomb it off the tee to win. Or be a great putter. Or have played Augusta National enough to solve its many mysteries.
The Masters has not produced as many off-the-wall champions as the other three majors, probably because it’s played on the same course every year. But you’d have a hard time finding anyone who would have predicted that it would be the lone major title for players like Johnson, Weir and Larry Mize.
Since Padraig Harrington went on his three majors in five tries stretch in 2007-08, McIlroy is the only player to win two of golf’s Grand Slam events in that span. And there are still a whole lot of outstanding players looking for their first major title.
Included on that list are Luke Donald, Brandt Snedeker, Justin Rose, Adam Scott, Matt Kuchar and Steve Stricker – six of the game’s top 10 players a month before the Masters. Add Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia, Jason Dufner, Dustin Johnson and Hunter Mahan and you have 12 of the top 21 without a major.
Most of the players on that list have made serious runs at a Masters title in the recent past. Westwood and Scott have both had potential victories snatched away by the heroics of the eventual champions, while Snedeker and Rose are among many who have crumbled under the pressure of holding the lead at some point in the tournament.
One of the easiest prognostication gigs in sports is picking the winner of one of the four majors on the men’s tennis tour. For years, you only had three names to consider. Now there are four, which equals the typical number of different major champions a year in men’s golf since Tiger Woods quit being Tiger Woods.
Don’t expect this year to be any different. There are way too many potential champions to sift through, which is why picking a winner in one of golf’s majors is much harder than simply learning how to spell Djokovic.
Woods will be a near-unanimous pick to win, but not here. The game’s current No. 1 lefty is probably the most likely choice, but anybody who can make two triple bogeys in a tournament and still almost win is eminently capable of finding some other method of letting one get away.
If not Woods or Mickelson, maybe Mahan. Or Rose, one of a large number of Brits/Irish who have been shut out in Augusta since the days of Faldo. If South Africa’s recent success has run its course, it might finally be an Australian, say Scott or Jason Day. Who really knows? That’s why we watch.
By Mike Blum