For Woods, returning to the winner's circle at Bay Hill
was huge as both validation that the hard work he's put in with Sean Foley
is paying off and also that he can still get the job done on Sunday. However, it doesn't guarantee he'll see the same result when he tees it up next at Augusta. Just three years ago, Woods won his final tuneup before all four major championships, yet didn't walk away with the trophy at any. This year, however, has been about constantly improving and between Bay Hill and a brilliant final-round 62 at the Honda, Woods has every reason to think he's peaking just at the right time
Augusta National's opening hole, "Tea Olive," has statistically been Tiger Woods' worst in his Masters career. Woods has averaged +.26 over par on the 445-yard par 4, and a double bogey to open the third round in 2009 left him too far back to rally on Sunday. In total, he has recorded a birdie there just four times in his Masters career. And as mentioned earlier, he hasn't exactly torn up No. 2 lately either. Being one under after two holes, instead of one over, a couple times this year could easily be the difference between winning and losing.
At last year's Masters, Woods tweaked his knee on the 17th hole of the third round
while attempting to hit a squatting shot from the pine straw (left). That didn't keep him from firing a Sunday 66, but that score might have been even better if he had been 100 percent. After recently re-injuring that leg, specifically his Achilles tendon, at Doral, Woods claims he's totally healthy. While he certainly looked it at Bay Hill, no one really knows if that's true -- or how long that will last. He should be fine scaling Augusta's hilly terrain, but avoiding the pine straw, where footing isn't as stable, will limit his vulnerability.
Gone are the days when he could go driver-sand wedge on No. 15, but Woods should still be one of the leaders when it comes to par-5 birdie percentage, especially at Augusta. While he's been fantastic on holes 13 and 15, he hasn't been as good on the two par 5s on the front nine, No. 2 and No. 8. In his win at Bay Hill, Woods was a field-best 12-under par on the four par 5s. To win at Augusta this year, he'll need similar results.
Woods' total driving is much improved in 2012, but he is still much more likely to avoid the big miss (get it?) when hitting 3-wood or his "stinger" 2-iron, which he's capable of hitting 280 yards, off the tee. This could especially come in handy on narrow, shortish par 4s like Nos. 7 and 14. Woods showed at Bay Hill that his iron game is sharp enough to leave himself longer yardages on approach shots and still score well.
Woods used to go out of his way to find things to motivate him (Stephen Ames, Vijay Singh's caddie, the Starbucks barista who didn't fill his coffee to the brim, etc.). While the pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' 18 major championships still drives him, it couldn't hurt to add extra incentive. McIlroy has been hailed as the heir apparent to Tiger for some time, and while Woods struggled, many people were ready to hand the 22-year old the title of golf's biggest star. Woods made it known at Bay Hill that he hasn't gone anywhere. A win at Augusta would leave little doubt as to who is still No. 1.
A five-shot win at Bay Hill was nice, but Woods still has something to prove in major championships before everyone declares him "back." He hasn't won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open and the last time he looked in control at one, the 2009 PGA Championship, he was taken down in the final group by Y.E. Yang. While that's the only time that's happened in 15 attempts, it's evidence that he's lost some of the psychological edge he had over other golfers. Woods still expects to win every time he tees it up, but he needs to make sure his competitors sense that confidence in order to regain his aura of invincibility.
Holes 11-13 make up the famed "Amen Corner," but it's really Nos. 10-12 that make the players most squeamish. Woods is not immune to this stretch, either. He has averaged +.15 over par or higher on each for his Masters career. The most surprising of those is on No. 12, aka "Golden Bell," the beautiful but often treacherous par 3. Despite it's short length (155 yards), Woods hasn't recorded a birdie there since the third round of 2005 -- the last year he captured a green jacket. He also killed any momentum he had last year after a brilliant front-nine when he carelessly three-putted for bogey.
Part of the reason Woods is widely considered the greatest putter of all time is due to his fearlessness when it comes to ramming in shorter putts. But at Augusta, where the greens are extra slick and the holes seem to be cut extra sharp, this can often backfire. Lip-outs, especially on downhill putts, can leave even longer comebackers. And in recent years (though he did lead the field in putting from inside of 10 feet during his win at Bay Hill), those haven't been automatic, either.
Woods has developed a trend of stumbling down the stretch after otherwise good or great rounds at Augusta. A couple times in recent years, he's even bogeyed 17 and 18, most notably in his Sunday duel with Phil Mickelson in 2009. Then, of course, there was 2011. Woods blitzed Augusta's front nine with a 31, but only played even par on the easier back nine to finish T-4 for a second-straight year. They say the Masters doesn't start until the back nine on Sunday. Unless it's a coronation like in 1997, Woods will need to close strong to capture that elusive 15th major championship.
• The Tiger Timeline | The evolution of Woods' swing