Tiger Woods returns at the Masters, but no one knows what to expect
Thursday, April 8, 2010
AUGUSTA, GA. -- In the final round of last year's Masters, Tiger Woods pulled back his driver on the first tee, unleashed it on a line well left of his target and, as his ball headed toward the adjacent ninth fairway, gritted his teeth and squeezed out some choice words, berating himself. It was scarcely an unusual sight, because for as many of Woods's upper-cut punches of the air that have celebrated his most dramatic moments over the years, there have been corresponding mini-meltdowns. Not-fit-for-print outbursts. Slammed clubs. Exchanges to make galleries blush.
"I'm actually going to try and obviously not get as hot when I play," Woods said Monday. "But then again, when I'm not as hot, I'm not going to be as exuberant, either. I can't play one without the other, and so I made a conscious decision to try and tone down my negative outbursts, and consequently I'm sure my positive outbursts will be calmed down as well."
A changed man? A changed golfer? After Woods's self-imposed exile of nearly five months officially ends Thursday afternoon in the first round of the Masters, some of those answers will begin to take shape, if only embryonically. What will the result be? Nearly everyone at Augusta National -- other players, fans, Woods himself -- is wondering. No one knows.
"We don't know what sort of bearing it's going to have, obviously, in the short-term," three-time major champion Padraig Harrington said. "He could be incredibly stressed and have quite an effect."
What is not debatable: The circumstances of this year's Masters have changed, for Woods and everyone else. In every year since 1997, when Woods won the first of his 14 major championships here, he had to be considered the favorite when he returned to Augusta National. Now, he is being asked about his infidelity and personal failings. He is trying to change his behavior on the course. He has not played a competitive round since November, when he completed a victory at the JBWere Masters in Melbourne. His game and his mindset are both in question, and the Masters is wide open because of it.
"If he can maybe get rid of all the outside factors, he actually could perform at a higher level," said Steve Stricker, ranked second in the world behind only Woods. "That's what's going to be interesting to watch, as a fan and as a player, just to see how he plays from here on out."
There are 95 other players here. One of them, three-time major champion Ernie Els, has won twice in the last month. Four of them -- Phil Mickelson, Zach Johnson, Trevor Immelman and Angel Cabrera -- have won Masters titles since Woods's most recent, back in 2005. Four others -- Harrington, Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink and Y.E. Yang -- have won major championships since Woods's last such title, the 2008 U.S. Open.
Though Woods's last four appearances here have not yielded another green jacket, he has been in contention each time -- tied for third in 2006, tied for second in '07, the lone runner-up to Immelman in '08, and tied for sixth in '09. Last year was the only other time he faced serious questions about his fitness to win, because he was returning from reconstructive knee surgery that cost him nearly nine months. Then, though, he had played three tournaments prior to the Masters, winning his final start.
"He's playing well," said Mark O'Meara, Woods's friend who played parts of practice rounds with him Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday. "He'll play well this week. If he doesn't play well, I'll be surprised. . . .
"We were walking down the fifth hole or something. He says, 'This is what it's all about. This is what we did, you and I together. It's just like the old days.' "
But can it really be like the old days so soon? Woods's two most recent major championships have brought an unusual result -- missing the cut at the British Open last July, just the second time he had done so at a major as a pro -- and an unprecedented one, squandering the 54-hole lead at the PGA Championship and losing to the relatively unknown Yang. Even before the revelations of the winter, there were cracks.
Woods's competitors didn't see the scandal coming -- "Couldn't believe it at times, what was coming out," Stricker said -- but they were long ago trained never to dismiss his chances. In fact, they are wary of him when others would be dismissed.