Saturday, February 24, 2018
Golf

Tiger Woods seeks to turn back clock at Masters

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The old man was telling stories now, about Gene Sarazen and Byron Nelson and Sam Snead, about the Crow's Nest and Amen Corner, about old rivals and the way the course used to be when he was young.

If nothing else, the Masters brings out the lore in a golfer, and Tiger Woods, long in the Tiger tooth, fell into the familiar rhythm of a man who had seen many things. He talked about his first victory, about his rickety knee, about his beard such as it is, about kids today, about the new balance of his life the way old folks often do.

He is no longer a young man, Tiger Woods. He has been to 19 of these Masters — 19 — and he is now an impossible 37 years old. We have seen Tiger the dominator, and Tiger the champion, and Tiger the intimidator, and Tiger the scandalous, and Tiger the injured.

Tuesday, he was Eldrick the Elder.

And, really, isn't it about time Woods hauled in another one of these Masters?

Time was, this was Woods' playground. He treated Augusta National as if it was his backyard and the other golfers were just visiting. He won the Masters three times in his first six professional visits, and the impression for a while was that he could win any time he was paying attention.

Ah, but it has been eight years now since Woods has won here, five years since he has won a major anywhere. Woods is No. 1 in the world once more, but the old invincibility has not returned.

He was 30 the last time he won the Masters, back in 2005, back when his dominance seemed as if it would last forever, back before his adultery scandals, back before his divorce, back before his bad knee. Jack Nicklaus' record 18 majors seemed as if it would be a layup from there.

What, he was asked, would he have thought at the 2005 Green Jacket ceremony if he knew it would be at least another eight years before he won another one.

"I wouldn't have been happy with that," Woods said.

"I put myself in the mix every year but last year, and that's the misleading part. It's not like I've been out of there with no chance of winning the championship. I've been there, and unfortunately, I just haven't gotten it done. I've made runs to get myself in it. I've been there in the mix on the back nine and either not executed, or not made enough puts, or didn't take care of the par 5s or whatever it may be."

For instance, Woods was tied for third in '06, and tied for second in '07, and second in '08, and sixth in '09, and tied for fourth in '10 and '11. Last year, he fell to 40th, but for six years of the drought, Woods has been almost good enough here.

Elsewhere, he hasn't been as sharp. Blame the knee for that. He missed two British Opens, one U.S. Open, one PGA. His ranking has fallen as low as 58th.

In other words, if Woods thinks he still has a shot at Nicklaus, he had better get about it. This is a critical summer for him.

"I would like to get to that point," Woods said. "It took Jack a while to get to 18, all the way until he was 46. So there's plenty of opportunity for me."

Perhaps there is less time than Woods thinks. Nicklaus won four times after he was Tiger's age; Tiger needs five to break the record.

"If he doesn't win, it makes my record go out further," said Nicklaus. "He's in his 38th year. He's got to win five majors, which is a pretty good career for most people. It's been a while. He's going to have to figure it out.

"Now, I still expect him to break my record. He's got too much talent and too much drive. But he's got to do it."

This seems like fine time to resume. Woods has won six times in the past 12 months (non-majors), and he has regained the No. 1 ranking. He's the betting favorite. That's a long way from being back, especially when you consider how dominant Woods once was, but it's a start.

"I feel comfortable with every aspect of my game," Woods said. "I feel that I've improved and I've gotten more consistent."

Woods said he never questioned whether he had lost it.

"No, because I wasn't physically capable of doing it. I wasn't healthy enough. Couldn't practice, couldn't play, sat out major championships. I just wasn't able to do any of the sessions that I needed to do to improve. And I was making a swing change with Sean (Foley, his swing coach)."

There is an older soul to Woods this days. Maybe it's the 19 attempts at the Masters. Maybe it's the age. Maybe it's the scandal or the injury or the newfound cuddles with Lindsay Vonn. Whether you think Tiger has moved on from his scandal or not, it is clear that he does.

Who knows? Maybe the ad is right ... winning does fix everything.

"I've said that since the beginning of my career," Woods said. "That was an old quote that Nike put out there, and people jumped on it, but it's something I've said since I turned pro."

You know, back in the day, when Tiger was Tiger and the Masters were the Masters.

Perhaps, they can be again.

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