Augusta outlook bright for sunnier Woods
Putting like a dream and happy off-course, the number one is the Masters favourite
Rory McIlroy has a laugh with playing partner Tiger Woodsat the WGC-Cadillac Championship in Doral, Florida, recently. A happier Woods is back to his best. Photograph: Andrew Innerarity/Reuters
Like the towering oak outside Augusta National’s clubhouse, Tiger Woods will cast a considerable shadow over this year’s Masters.
With his trunk once again in perfect alignment over putts, Woods, a four-time champion, arrives at the men’s first major of the year as the world’s number one golfer and the prohibitive favourite.
Steve Stricker, a friend who is considered one of the tour’s better putters, straightened Woods’ posture in an impromptu hour-long session last month, and his rhythmic putting stroke clicked into place.
In his last 144 holes, Woods has made 35 putts longer than eight feet, the range that proved his ruination two years ago, when he made the turn Sunday with a shot at winning the Masters.
The adjustments Woods has made on the greens are subtle.
“If you look at Tiger, what he’s doing on his set up and all that, you really can’t see any difference,” said ESPN analyst Andy North, a two-time major champion. There are the technical tweaks that have brought a 15th major title into sharp focus for Woods, and then there are the intangibles.
On the greens or on his own, Woods is trusting, not trying.
For the first time since he drove his car into a fire hydrant in 2009 and his world spun out of control, he seems, as Stricker put it, “a little more at peace or at ease with himself”.
Woods’ first putting instructor was his father Earl, who encouraged him to “putt to the picture.”
Of all the strokes, a putt should be the easiest to visualise; there is no club selection to debate, no out-of-bounds area to block out, no weight transfer to make. But what if one’s mind is a cluttered attic of memories, and the helpful images are hard to find?
“Some people will never forgive Tiger for what happened, but that’s unimportant to his success,” said Paul Azinger.
“For a person who makes mistakes in their life, they have to have the ability to forgive themselves before they can come to grips and really have that peace again that I think is required for Tiger to play the way he has.
“So I think it’s a good sign for him personally that he’s playing the way he’s playing.”
Damian Vaughn, a former NFL tight end turned performance coach, described Azinger’s observation as accurate.
Vaughn said Woods’ serial adultery, and his subsequent divorce, had thrown his identity out of sync. Vaughn, who has not worked with Woods, said: “Tiger is someone who clearly has had the ability on the course to regulate his emotions, to handle the pressure and stresses so he is able to perform at his peak when it matters most. But what happened in his personal life jeopardised his perception of himself.
“Now there’s a discrepancy in what he thinks he has to do and what he’s actually done. To narrow that gap, Tiger had to access what happened. He had to take his emotions, objectively observe them, accept them and then let them go.
“He had to forgive himself so he could return to using his mental power in a positive way.”
Vaughn added: “He’s obviously looking happier. If he is at peace in work life and his personal life, that’s everything.”
Since his 2010 divorce, Woods has shared custody of his two children with his former wife, Elin Nordegren.
On the final day of the Honda Classic, the tour event in March near his Jupiter, Florida home, Woods was walking to the eighth green when a “Go, Daddy” sign, held by a girl standing behind the gallery rope, caught his eye.
Woods veered toward the rope, bent over and kissed his daughter, Sam, the sign-bearer, on the forehead. Two weeks later, in another public display of affection, Woods posted on his Facebook page portraits of himself with the Olympic champion skier Lindsey Vonn as part of an announcement that they were dating.
“I don’t really know too much about his personal life, but it just seems like he’s happier,” Stricker said, “whether that means his golf game or his personal life are in better order or all of the above. Yeah, it just seems like I think he’s got some confidence going in both areas, you know, and he’s playing well and putting well and feeling good about everything.”
Stricker was struck by the way Woods credited him with his success on the greens after their practice session before the World Golf Championships event at Doral. “To throw me a bone like he did at the end of the tournament, it was very nice,” Stricker said. “He doesn’t do that very often.”
Mark O’Meara, who was once as close to Woods, was struck by a text message he received from Woods last month as he stepped off an elevator after a strong opening round at the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic in Biloxi.
O’Meara said Woods wrote, “Hey, nice playing, dude”.
O’Meara, who had grown apart from Woods in recent years, after his own divorce and transition to the Champions Tour, said his first reaction was: “Wow. This is really nice.” He said he tapped a playful response, “Dude, are you turning over a new leaf, my man?”
On the course, Woods is back to his old self where it counts. He ranks first on the tour in putting and has won three tournaments.
“You very seldom see a player play exceptionally well when they’ve got issues going on off the golf course,” North said.
“The more comfortable you are off the golf course, generally the more comfortable you’ll be on it. And if Tiger has found a happy spot, that’s great. It’s only going to help him in the long run.”