Friday, April 5, 2013

Tiger tamer

Tiger Woods has proved he can win regulation US tour events again, but can he resume his progress towards Nicklaus' pinnacle of 18 majors?

Tiger Woods has proved he can win regulation US tour events again, but can he resume his progress towards Nicklaus' pinnacle of 18 majors? Photo: Reuters

On the back of his two last-start victories, Tiger Woods has assumed his customary position not just at the top of the world golf rankings but heading the bookies' list of fancies before a major championship, this time the US Masters beginning on Thursday.

Having slipped as low as world No.58 in late 2011 - after he was repeatedly hobbled by injury then the revelation he was showing off his swizzle stick to a conga line of cocktail waitresses - Woods is now back as a fixture in the winners' circle: this season, he's batting at an impressive 3-from-5.

The reborn and partly redeemed Tiger has had an eventful year: he's re-embraced Buddhism, embarked on a romance with US Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn and even released a new Nike ad which carries the caption ''Winning Takes Care of Everything.'' (Well, no it doesn't, not when your public image is as whiffy as his is, and a certain Texan by the name of L. Armstrong has nuked the notion that sporting success can somehow disguise your shortcomings as a bloke).

But we digress. The important point here is that Tiger is back at the top of his game, winning the WGC event at Doral a fortnight ago and last week's Arnold Palmer Invitational, both by two shots. In fact, he has won six times in his past 22 US PGA Tour starts, sending his pre-Masters hype rocketing into the stratosphere. Australian bookmakers have bought into it, installing him as $3.75 favourite.


But here's the thing: having won four Masters titles by the age of 29, Tiger hasn't had the tournament's garish green garment slipped over his shoulders since 2005. And having amassed 14 majors by the age of 32 - which had him perched three-quarters of the way up Mt Nicklaus - the one-time boy wonder has been stuck on that mountainside since 2008, winning nothing except a serious case of frostbite.

Where once the business of winning majors came to him as effortlessly as easing the floppy Tiger's head cover off his driver, now it's taken on a whole new significance - and degree of difficulty.

Tiger has proved he can win regulation US tour events again, but can he resume his progress towards Nicklaus' pinnacle of 18 majors, the mark that represents his one great unrealised dream?

That's the fascinating part of the year's first major. If you listen to the American media, no one else need bother turning up; Tiger's got it in the bag. Personally, I'm not so sure.

In winning at Doral, he hit his drives - on the rare occasion he reached for the big dog - all over the park. That's a luxury he won't have at Augusta, a course that now requires precision, as well as length, off the tee.

In an effort to control his driving (as of last week, he was ranked No.25 in distance but No.145 in accuracy), Woods' stock shot off the tee is now a power fade. Sometimes that fade develops into an ugly slice. The shot-tracking device used on American golf telecasts often shows Woods' drives heading down the left tree line before arcing towards the right side of the fairway or right rough.

At Augusta, Woods can't rely on hitting his three wood and ''stinger'' two irons from the tee. The course is too long for that. He'll have to pull out the driver on at least six holes and maybe as many as eight. And the gallery down the right side of those fairways would be well advised to pull out the hard hat, or ask to borrow Vonn's helmet and goggles.

The PGA Tour stats show that he has ended in the right rough - and worse - with 22 per cent of his tee shots this year (46 out of 206), which places him at No.178 in that particular category. Or, put another way, 177 players are less slice-prone than him.

Last year, Woods was also the favourite at Augusta but finished in 40th place with a best round of 72. Since 2005, he's produced only six rounds (of 28) in the 60s.

Sure, he's mustered six top-10 finishes at the Masters since that play-off win over Chris DiMarco, but the other top-liners in the field this week won't fear him like they once did. They know he's fallible. They know on Sunday afternoon his nerves will be frayed, and knees trembling, just like everyone else's.

The PGA Tour now assembles the most mind-boggling array of stats imaginable. There are categories for clubhead speed, launch angle, spin rate (if someone knows how they work that one out, can they please send me a note?), distance to apex (ditto) and something called smash factor (no, I don't know either).

Anyway, hidden away in this blizzard of information is an interesting tidbit: Woods' scoring average in the first two rounds this season is 67.88 (ranking him first), for the third round it's 68.00 (third) but in the final round, it blows out - relatively speaking - to 71.75 strokes, ranking him 118th. They're not figures you'd associate with the old Tiger.

So he's played 14 majors now without saluting, easily the longest major-less stretch of his career. Mt Nicklaus is now looming before him like the Matterhorn. He's not the indomitable force he once was and until he wins a major again, it's silly to pretend otherwise.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign for him this year has been the return of his putting stroke, the one that prompted Greg Norman - hardly the American's greatest fan - to nominate Woods as the greatest clutch putter he'd ever seen.

At Doral, for example, Woods needed just 100 putts - an extraordinary figure that equates to 1.39 putts a green. And (a tip of the hat to the PGA Tour stats guys again), this year he is ranked the best putter in that crucial range from 5-8 metres, where he is successful 28.5 per cent of the time, almost one putt in three.

If he can replicate that sort of form at Augusta, well perhaps he will have Bubba acting as his personal valet in the Butler Cabin next Sunday. And that will make fools of all the naysayers and doom merchants. Which is why I've got the jester's hat handy, silly bells and all, just in case.

Charles Happell is publisher of
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