While Phil Mickelson is back in winning form with his victory in Houston, Tiger Woods still seems lost.
The Masters, however, could be Woods' true north. It could be his way back.
Working his way through the labyrinth that is Augusta National, immersing his wits in the business of unlocking the course’s secrets one more time, there’s the possibility he finds himself along the journey.
There’s the possibility he finds his game as he makes his way through so many triumphant memories.
There’s even the possibility he rediscovers his greatness.
Yes, major championship pressure, severe conditions like we’ll see at Augusta National, they work to exacerbate what’s wrong with a player’s game, but it can work the other way. If you don’t believe it, ask Jack Nicklaus. He says returning to Baltusrol for the U.S. Open in 1980 snapped him out of the worst slump of his career.
“I wasn’t very happy going to the U.S. Open,” Nicklaus said. “But you just keep working at it, and you keep doing things, and all of a sudden, something kicks in. I think that’s what will happen with Tiger.”
Nicklaus plummeted to 71st on the PGA Tour money list in 1979. He said his confidence was as low as it had ever been, and he re-worked his swing starting the ‘80 season. Though he wasn’t very satisfied with his progress going to Baltusrol, something happened in his return there. Baltusrol is where Nicklaus broke Ben Hogan’s 72-hole U.S. Open scoring record when he won in 1967.
Nicklaus needed to rediscover his greatness all those years ago, and he did so at Baltusrol in ‘80. He set the U.S. Open scoring record for a second time.
“I shot 63 in the first round and missed a little putt for 62 on the last hole,” Nicklaus said. “All of a sudden, I said, 'Hey, maybe this is my time to start doing it the right way again.’ All of a sudden your mind turns around.”
Woods hasn’t had much success trying to find his game on his favorite venues since he made his return to golf from his well-documented personal woes at last year’s Masters. He’s struggled at Firestone, Torrey Pines, Dubai, Doral and Bay Hill, but Augusta National is different. No venue rewards those who know its secrets more than Augusta National.
“There’s no other major where knowledge of how to play that golf course comes into play more,” Woods said. “That’s why you see so many repeat winners there.”
With Woods having won four green jackets, nobody's won more Masters titles except Nicklaus, who won six.
There’s just one other contender in this year’s Masters’ field who knows the mysteries of Augusta National as well as Woods. That’s Mickelson, winner of three green jackets.
So while there’s the possibility Woods finds his game trying to win the Masters, there’s also the compelling possibility he finds Mickelson in his path.
With Mickelson winning Sunday at the Shell Houston Open, Ladbrokes makes him a 7-to-1 favorite to win the Masters. Woods is 10-to-1. Nearly all the bookmakers now list Mickelson as the favorite.
It isn’t just Mickelson’s victory in Houston; it’s the sense that Mickelson owns more Masters magic now.
“I feel like a kid when I play Augusta,” Mickelson said. “It gets me rejuvenated, energized, and I just really look forward to practicing hard and working and playing golf. There's something very spiritual about Augusta for me.
“It reminds me of when I was 10 years old watching Seve Ballesteros win in 1980 and saying to my mom, 'I want to win that tournament. I want to be like that and win that event'.”
Woods may have won more Masters titles than Mickelson, but it’s been awhile since Woods has won a green jacket. He hasn’t won at Augusta National since 2005.
Mickelson’s the defending champ. He’s emboldened with the fresh memory of his 6-iron through the trees at the 13th in last year’s final round, with the memory of his victorious hug with his wife, Amy, in her first public return to the game after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
For all those years, Woods loomed as the man blocking Mickelson’s dreams. Now, Mickelson looks like he’s standing in Woods’ way. Mickelson even jumped in front of Woods in the world rankings for the first time in 14 years.
Bookmakers don’t set odds based on who they think is going to win an event. They base them on their gauge of what they believe bettors are thinking.
Golf fans are losing faith in Woods. The betting lines say so.
But Nicklaus isn’t.
“I still think he’ll break my record,” Nicklaus said.
Woods said he found comfort in that faith.
“That's something that is very humbling,” Woods said. “I respect the heck out of Jack, and what he's done and the person he is. And for him to still believe that I can still play top-notch golf, it certainly is a confidence-booster, there's no doubt.”
Back in ’97, after foundering with a 40 on his first nine in his first Masters as a pro, Woods found greatness. He found it on the way to a record 12-shot Masters rout.
If Woods is ever going to rediscover his greatness, Augusta National feels like the place.
But Woods may have to get through Mickelson this time to find it.
Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell