Tiger Woods’s return to the Masters Tournament this week coincides with his ascension to golf’s No. 1 ranking. He’s also regained an advantage he held when he won his 14 majors.
“Intimidation,” former U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange, now an ESPN television analyst, said on an April 4 media conference call. “Great players are intimidating. Jack Nicklaus had an air about him that was intimidating, and so does Tiger. That’s part of it.”
It’s been several years since Woods held that edge. He hadn’t been No. 1 for 2 1/2 years, and has gone eight years since capturing the most recent of his four titles in Augusta, Georgia. With bookmakers again making him the pre-tournament favorite, things appear to finally be turning around for the 37-year-old Woods, on and off the course.
Woods, who has won his last two starts and six of his last 20, spoke at a news conference today about his improved health and the changes he has made under Sean Foley, who replaced Hank Haney as his coach in 2010.
“I feel comfortable with every aspect of my game,” Woods said. “I feel that I’ve improved and I’ve got more consistent, and I think the wins show that. That’s something that I’m proud of so far this year, and hopefully I can continue it this week and the rest of the year.”
Woods won his last U.S. PGA Tour event, taking the Arnold Palmer Invitational for the record eighth time last month and pushing his U.S. Tour victory total to 77, within five of Sam Snead’s mark for the most titles.
As his world ranking slipped to No. 58, the list of players who were able to beat Woods in a final round grew longer. It started in 2009, when Y.E. Yang overcame a two-shot deficit in the final round to top Woods in the PGA Championship, ending Woods’s streak of 14 straight major titles when holding the lead entering the final 18 holes. At last year’s HSBC Championship in Abu Dhabi, England’s Robert Rock was tied with Woods going into the final round. Paired with Woods, Rock birdied three of his opening six holes and won by one shot, while Woods shot 75 and finished third.
With Woods winning again, things seem to be returning to the way they were when he won his most recent major, the 2008 U.S. Open. Two weeks ago, Woods held a two-shot lead over final-round playing partner Rickie Fowler at Bay Hill. Needing to make a move to try to catch Woods, Fowler dunked two shots into the water on the 16th hole, leading to a triple-bogey. Woods birdied the hole and won by two shots.
Woods, who skipped last week’s PGA Tour event in Texas to prepare for the Masters, will tee off in the opening round at Augusta National Golf Club at 10:45 a.m. local time with England’s Luke Donald and American Scott Piercy, who is making his first appearance.
In five U.S. events this season, Woods has won three. His victory at Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge pushed him past Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking. While Woods failed to win the Masters in the two other years (2003 and 2008) in which he collected three wins before the championship, he appears to have regained his confidence, his opponents said.
“He’s hitting it nicely,” U.S. PGA Tour player Steve Stricker, who played a practice round with Woods at Augusta National two days ago, said in a press conference yesterday. “Looks like he’s got a ton of confidence in that putter, too.”
Stricker, 46, spent about 45 minutes helping Woods with his putting stroke before last month’s Cadillac Championship. Woods then won his next two events and leads all PGA Tour players with a total of 1.47 putting strokes gained on the field per round. Woods also leads in scoring average at 68.3 strokes per round.
“Let’s face it, no one on the face of the earth has ever putted like Tiger Woods putts, especially under pressure,” former U.S. Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger said on a media conference call. “Now that he’s putting good again, he can finish dead last in fairways hit and win.”
Woods, who is four major wins shy of Nicklaus’s record of 18, tied for 40th at last year’s Masters after finishing fourth the previous two years. He is the 7-2 favorite at U.K. bookmaker William Hill Plc. McIlroy, a two-time major winner, is the second favorite, at 8-1, followed by three-time champion Phil Mickelson (11-1).
Woods said today that he remained focused trying to break Nicklaus’s mark.
“Yeah, I would like to be able to get to that point,” he said. “It took Jack a while to get to 18, all the way until he was 46 years old. So there’s plenty of opportunities for me.”
Since his most recent Masters victory in 2005, Woods’s life has undergone changes. In addition to becoming divorced from Elin Nordegren, his wife of four years, after admitting marital infidelity, Woods changed his coach, his caddie and his swing, and underwent a series of knee and leg operations. He recently disclosed that he was in a relationship with six-time World Cup skiing champion Lindsey Vonn.
“He’s happy and he’s relaxed and he just feels good about what he’s doing with his game,” Stricker said. “It’s showing in his attitude, too. I fully expect him to be in the mix on Sunday.”