AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tiger Woods won four Masters in nine years thanks largely to his advantage off the tee. At age 43, he has to find other ways to break through for his fifth green jacket and end a drought at Augusta National Golf Club dating to 2005.
Not that he likes it that way.
“I would like to hit it 40, 50 yards past the longest guy out here and I'll figure it out from there,” Woods responded with a grin when asked if he’d prefer to have the advantage of length or experience over the 86 other contestants in this year’s field.
Of course, he doesn’t get to choose. And, besides, he’s already done it the way he would like, dominating off the tee in years like 1997, when he won by a record 12 strokes, and 2001, when he completed the “Tiger Slam.”
Surgically repaired back and all, Woods still is long enough to hold his own against today’s bombers, and he picked up a few more yards after putting a lighter shaft in his driver for the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play two weeks ago. The key will be putting to use what he called, “a pretty good little library in my head.”
“Throughout the years,” he added, “I accumulated a lot of knowledge how to play it under different conditions and playing practice rounds with guys who have won here a lot, who understand how to play it. And then to be a part of the entire process of having to compete as they have evolved the golf course and trying to understand how to play it, it changes from when they do change a few things and having to adjust that.”
In other words, few participants know the course better. “I know I can play this golf course. I’ve had some success here.”
You don’t say.
But that didn’t mean much last April as Woods returned to Augusta for the first time in two years. He ended up T-32 – just the second time in his 19 starts here as a pro he finished outside the top-25 – even though he averaged a respectable 293.8 off the tee, 14th in the field. Last year, though, Woods was competing in his first major since the 2015 PGA Championship and was still climbing back up the world rankings, coming in at 103rd.
This year, he’s 12th in the world, and in the last two majors he put a serious scare in the winners: Francesco Molinari at the Open Championship, where he was T-6 and Brooks Koepka in the PGA Championship, where he was runner-up.
Koepka, who missed the Masters in 2018 with a wrist injury, said of Woods earlier Tuesday, “We all know he’s back. There’s no doubt about that. [But] you know, can he get it done?”
He couldn’t against Koepka at Bellerive Country Club in the 100th PGA. “Yeah, I think I already spoiled everybody of their dreams the last time we played,” said Koepka, who also is the reigning two-time U.S. Open champion. “I mean, it would be cool to see him win. I think everybody in the field would love to stop him. I enjoyed stopping history [last year]. I had a great time.”
That’s the real issue—beating Koepka and Molinari, in addition to world No. 1 Justin Rose and Dustin Johnson and a confident Rory McIlroy, just to name a few players expected to contend.
But at least Woods knows he still has the tools to do it, having won just up the road in Atlanta at the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club. That victory, his 80th on the PGA Tour, capped his remarkable comeback season. That might be the single most important piece of knowledge he has when he begins his 22nd Masters at 1:49 p.m. ET Thursday playing alongside Haotong Li and Jon Rahm.
“Winning at East Lake confirmed to me that I could still win again,” Woods affirmed. “I put myself there with a chance to win the last two major championships last year. I was right there and just needed to have a couple more things to go my way and not throw away a couple shots here and there, which I was able to do at East Lake. I just feel like that I've improved a lot over the past 12, 14 months, but I've more than anything just proven to myself that I can play at this level again. I've worked my way back into one of the players that can win events.”
Including this one, because, you know, he’s had some success here.