AUGUSTA, Ga. – With apologies to first impressions, the optimism that marked Tiger Woods’ first two days at the Masters has little to do with longer drives and more repeatable release patterns.
As encouraging as Woods’ limited play at Augusta National has been, a total of 20 holes through two practice days, it was the broad smile and relaxed shoulders that spoke more to what one can expect from the four-time Masters champion this week.
Through two days, Woods has smiled and laughed and hugged his way around the rolling hills. He signed up to play Wednesday’s Par 3 Contest for the first time since 2004; he engaged galleries with every step; he even jokingly gunned a 3-foot birdie putt at No. 7 on Monday some 10 feet past the hole before flashing his signature grin to a stunned gallery.
Who is this guy and what has he done with Tiger Woods?
As encouraging as his play has been for two days – for those interested in such things, he hit 69 chip shots on Monday without a single skull or chili dip – it’s been the often-hard-to-interpret body language that suggests things are indeed better.
In short, he appears to be a man who, at least outwardly, is at ease with his own fate.
After eight weeks of seclusion, Woods has emerged from his South Florida beat lab secure in the notion he has arrived here honestly.
“I worked my ass off. That’s the easiest way to kind of describe it. I worked hard,” Woods said when asked how he had been filling his days since he withdrew from the Farmers Insurance Open in February.
“People would never understand how much work I put into it to come back and do this again. But it was sun up to sun down, and whenever I had free time; if the kids were asleep, I'd still be doing it, and then when they were in school, I'd still be doing it. So it was a lot of work.”
It’s never been easy for Woods; he just made it look that way. This most recent detour into the competitive abyss – unique largely because it was more game-related (chipping) than it was injury induced – was a reminder that major championships don’t fall into one’s lap.
On Tuesday, following a nine-hole practice round with Mark O’Meara, Woods explained the distance he’s traveled since he removed himself from competition in February saying on his website, “When I think I’m ready, I’ll be back.”
With swing consultant Chris Como and confidant Notah Begay alongside, Woods said he has dug the answers he sought out of the South Florida turf along with a healthy dose of perspective.
He also reassured the amassed media that there will be no moral victories this week.
“Competing is still the same. I'm trying to beat everybody out there,” he said.
What seems to have changed is how a once supremely insular player has widened the circle, however slightly.
After years of moving in opposite directions, it was Woods who texted O’Meara on Monday morning for a practice round, and he included Begay in the comeback to offer the competitor’s perspective to Como’s teachings.
It has all the markings of a man who realizes he’s reached a competitive crossroads, and not just because this week will mark his 20th start at the Masters and the 10-year anniversary of the last time he slipped an arm into the green jacket.
On Tuesday, Woods said at Torrey Pines and the Waste Management Phoenix Open – where he missed the cut – he was “caught between.” The reference was to release patterns, but it could have just as easily been a nod to his current career path.
In one direction is a familiar road that’s included just two Sunday tee times over the last two years, down the other is a chance to resume his pursuit of his 15th major championship and his fifth green jacket.
Along the way Woods conceded there were dark days when the release patterns were off and his back hurt and the path to the top suddenly didn’t seem so clear.
“There were times when there were a few clubs that flew, suddenly slipped out of my hand and traveled some pretty good distances, too,” said Woods, who enters this week 111th in the Official World Golf Ranking. “There were some frustrating moments, but I had to stick with it.”
With that resolve has come a rare dose of retrospect as Woods begins to play his last Masters in his 30s, a nostalgic nod that would be predictable for most players – but then Tiger has never thought like most players.
He’s always appeared above the pressure and the pitfalls that have sidelined so many other champions, but on Monday O’Meara offered a rare perspective that is often easy to overlook when it comes to Woods.
“He hasn’t had a normal 39 years,” O’Meara said. “To be a little off and struggle a little bit, sometimes in life it’s good to struggle.”
Despite the desire for instant analysis, Monday and Tuesday’s turns at Augusta National mean very little with the main event looming on Thursday, but the body language – the jokes and the laughs and the headphones – suggest Woods is at ease with his situation, wherever that may lead.