Augusta, Ga. – He practiced putting on the 18th green Wednesday morning, then fist-bumped Fred Couples. He strode, eyes forward, toward the Augusta National clubhouse, ignoring well-wishers and autograph requests, surrounded by five security guards and his personal public relations manager.
Middle-aged men rushed toward the rope, holding cameras above their head, attempting to take a blind shot of one of the most photographed men in the world, as he walked past the famous “Big Oak Tree” with his entourage.
The state of his game and the reactions of those around him suggest this could be any year for Tiger Woods, any Masters, but his entourage and his hairline have changed, and his athletic arrogance now seems more shield than sword.
His longtime agent, Mark Steinberg, stood beneath the massive branches of the famous oak. So did his new girlfriend, champion skier and Burnsville native Lindsey Vonn. Analysis of his game these days includes not just the state of his putting but of his relationships, as Golf Channel announcers casually mention his amicable custody arrangements with his former wife, and the stability Vonn supposedly has brought him after years of ridicule and injury interrupted what promised to be and still might become the greatest career in golf history.
“Well, I think life is all about having a balance and trying to find equilibrium and not getting things one way or the other,” Woods said. “I feel very balanced.”
Tiger Woods has never been about balance, though. All of his dials turn to 11. His career has been about transcendence and history, improbable talent and singular intensity, self-imposed changes and the most embarrassing of scandals. Now, almost five years since his last major championship and seven years since his last victory at Augusta, it is more about questions than deeds, and there is no precedent for these kinds of questions, not in golf.
Is he back? Yes, in that he has won three times this year. No, in that he has always defined himself by major championships, and he has been stuck on 14, four shy of Jack Nicklaus’ record, since winning the U.S. Open on a shredded knee in 2008 at Torrey Pines.
Can he recapture greatness? That is the defining question in golf this year, a question most apt at Augusta, where Woods became the youngest golfer to win the Masters and did so by 12 shots. He would win in 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2005 on a course that invented the term “Tiger-proofing.” When Phil Mickelson draped the green jacket on Woods’ shoulders after his 2005 victory, it would have been as hard to imagine Woods going winless at Augusta for seven years as it was to imagine him becoming TMZ’s favorite athlete.
Woods’ recent victories have propelled him to the No. 1 ranking in the world again, but he’s No. 1 in a different way now. His advantage is statistical, not emotional. His dormant years did not eliminate his chance to break Nicklaus’ record, but they did erase his aura of invulnerability.
“He’s always a threat at any golf tournament,” said Adam Scott. “But he’s far from running away with it at the moment. He’s just returned to No. 1, and that’s just a number at the end of the day. I mean, there are so many players playing well. I think it’s just not a foregone conclusion.
“The biggest thing is [younger pros] weren’t out here when he was [intimidating] and never saw that. So they don’t know of him really doing that or haven’t seen him at that level where he has played before. I think that’s the difference. I think he’d have to put runs on the board again to get back to that.”
The world’s best golfers no longer quake at the sight of Woods’ oversized galleries, and Augusta National no longer offers him an advantage. In reaction to Woods’ prodigious length turning the Masters into his own private pitch-and-putt course, the tournament committee lengthened holes and tightened fairways, particularly on holes No. 7 and 11.
When he first played No. 11, he could drive the ball over the trees lining the right side of the fairway, leaving himself a short iron or wedge at a favorable angle for his approach. He could play the hole in a way that was not intended.
Now the tees have been moved well back and trees have been added to the right side of the fairway, meaning he has to hit a precise drive followed by a long iron that either must challenge the pond in front of the green or leave a difficult, downhill putt that runs toward the water.
Since a coaching session this winter from Steve Stricker improved his putting, driving accuracy remains Woods’ most persistent nemesis. Driving distance gave him his greatest advantage in his early years on tour. Now he knows he needs to win with putting and course management. He compared the evolution of his game to that of Michael Jordan.
“Certainly, at 37, I’m not what I was when I was 19 as far as flexibility,” he said. “I’m far stronger and far more explosive than I was then. I just certainly don’t have that elasticity, and that’s a function of age. It’s MJ jumping over everybody, and then the next thing you know, he’s got a fadeaway.”
That’s the only context in which Woods will mention fading away. Nicklaus won his 15th major when he was 38. Woods is 37. After all he’s been through the past five years, a victory this week would put Woods back on pace to surpass the record he’s coveted since he was a kid.
Like an American president, Woods looks like his job has aged him at an unnatural rate. His new goatee distracts from the hair missing from the top of his head. It feels like he’s been overshadowing the golf world for far longer than 19 years.
“We have very expansive careers,” he said. “I feel like I’m basically right in the middle of mine. I have a lot of good years ahead of me.”
Good, or great? No matter the circumstances, that is the question, and has always been the question, for Tiger Woods.
Jim Souhan can been heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10-noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org