If Tiger Woods plays his best in next week's Masters, he will win his fifth green jacket. That's because Woods at his best is better than any other player in the field at his best. Predicting the winner of a major can't get any easier. The logic is irrefutable.
But that doesn't mean Woods, whose win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational was his first PGA Tour victory in 30 months, is a lock at the Augusta National Golf Club. How often does any golfer play his best? Woods has won 14 majors as he tries to catch and then surpass Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 majors. But he's played 62 majors in his career. Other golfers have won 48 majors that he's played.
Of his 62 majors, Woods, who turned 36 last December, has played 56 since turning professional. He's therefore won 25 per cent of those, an astonishing figure. By the same age, Nicklaus as a professional had also played 56 majors had won 12, or 21.4 per cent.
Woods overpowered the field during some of his wins. He won the 1997 Masters by 12 shots, the 2000 U.S. Open by 15, the Open Championship a month later by eight, and the 2005 Open and PGA Championships by five. When Woods is on, he makes the other golfers appear to be playing another tournament.
That's the way it was last week at the Bay Hill Club in Orlando, where Woods won for the seventh time. He answered many questions as he rounded into form. But he was subdued after his win, because he knew he still wasn't in major championship form. Woods went back to work this week.
In his book The Big Miss, about his years coaching Woods, Hank Haney writes, "Tiger respected practice. It was sort of his church, the place he made the sacrifices that would lead to success." When Woods left Bay Hill after winning there, he was focused on only one thing: What he needed to do to play his best in the Masters. He set to working on the shots his experience there has told him he needs to win.
Woods's experience at Augusta National is deep. Augusta National's rolling, even turbulent, fairways, allied to wavy greens that can make a player's head spin, are vessels into which he can pour his creative impulses. At the same time, as Haney writes, Woods has learned that he doesn't need to win by a dozen shots. All he needs to do is win by one. Woods has become a more conservative golfer over the years. He's a mature, patient, master at the Masters.
If he is controlling his ball next week, he won't miss fairways on the wrong side, based on the pin positions. He won't short-side himself into greens. He won't hit approach shots above the hole. He won't try to hole long putts, but to leave himself stress-free tap-ins.
Of course, his distance control on his short irons, and his putting at all distances – especially shorter putts – has been suspect the last 30 months. He did have better control of his approaches and his speed on the greens last week at Bay Hill. It's certain that he's been working on the speed of his putts this week at the Medalist Golf Club in Hobe Sound, Fla., where he is a member.
The greens at Medalist have been cut to Augusta-like speed. He'll have been practising the touch shots around the greens. Medalist's greens complexes provide Woods with an excellent environment in which to prepare for Augusta National.
But no matter the quality of Woods's Masters preparation or his experience at Augusta National, no matter how much of a favourite he will be, the fact remains that he has not won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open. The fact remains that yes, he has won four of 17 Masters, but he hasn't won more; Arnold Palmer once predicted that Woods would win more Masters than him and Nicklaus combined – which would mean 11.
Meanwhile, the field is full of candidates for the green jacket. The list includes obvious choices such as 2011 U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, of whom so much is expected, three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson, Luke Donald, and Lee Westwood.
Woods, under the guidance of swing coach Sean Foley, seems to have found his stride again. But he'll need more than his stride to win his fifth Masters. He'll need the kick he once had in majors. Will he find the kick in addition to his stride? If he does, Woods will win. If he does, the answer to the question of whether Woods is back will be answered.
The answer will be "yes," in a major way.