Woods comes full circle at Augusta


AUGUSTA, Ga. – Everything one needs to know about the current state of Tiger Woods could be gleaned from his 25-minute media meet-and-greet on Tuesday at Augusta National.

Two years ago an embattled man was peppered with 48 questions, none which were golf related. From blood spinning and auto accidents to therapy and police reports, nothing was out of bounds.

On Tuesday before another packed house in the Augusta National press center the same man faced a much different reality. Woods was asked and answered 22 questions, all golf related.

In short, people want to know how far he’s hitting his 7-iron, not how far he’d fallen.

Five-stroke drought busters at Bay Hill will do that. It was widely accepted that for Woods to change the conversation he had to win, the bigger the stage the better.

“It felt good to go out there and play as well as I did and under those conditions,” Woods said of his Bay Hill breakthrough that ended a 30-month title slide. “It wasn’t like it was easy that Sunday.”

If his Arnold Palmer Invitational win marked the beginning of a new era for Woods, then Tuesday’s Q&A was something close to a coronation. He has started over in his South Florida digs, has become comfortable in his own skin again and is satisfied that he’s on the correct path.

Predictably the last piece of the puzzle was his reinvented swing. Woods’ adaptation of Sean Foley’s action has produced a victory and plenty of accolades. The only thing that remains in the “process” is a major, which would be Woods’ first since his historic 2008 U.S. Open TKO.

“I’ve been putting together two good rounds, eventually three, and now four,” said Woods, who stayed with his Masters routine and played a nine-hole practice round with Sean O’Hair and Fred Couples on Tuesday.

It’s worth noting this Masters will be Woods’ 18th. There was a time when some toyed with the notion he could run down Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships based almost entirely on his play at Augusta National, a theme that was bolstered by Nicklaus himself.

Nicklaus once opined following a practice round with Woods that he would win more green jackets than the Golden Bear and Arnold Palmer combined, and when Woods won three of his first six Masters as a professional Nicklaus’ prognostication suddenly didn’t seem like hyperbole.

But in 2002 the layout was “Tiger proofed,” and Woods has won just once in his last nine starts. That Woods has finished inside the top 10 in his last six Masters suggests that the makeover may have been more of a “Tiger toughening,” and his status as the pre-tournament favorite this week is certainly justified.

Even among his higher-ranked contemporaries, Woods has come by his favored status honestly.

“Obviously Tiger is always the guy that pushes the needle the most,” said world No. 1 Luke Donald. “For me, that’s probably a good thing. I can kind of go about my business and just get on with things.”

That Woods is ranked among the Tour’s straightest players off the tee also is fueling his status as the man to beat and sparking comparisons to the historic runs he crafted in 2000 and 2006.

When asked on Tuesday to compare his game now to where it was in 2000 Woods’ response was chilling for his Tour frat brothers.

“I have more shots than I did in 2000,” Woods said. “I’m hitting the ball just as consistently day in and day out as I did then.”

2000? The year he stomped the field by 15 at the U.S. Open, won nearly half of his official Tour starts (nine of 20) and completed the front end of what became the Tiger Slam, that 2000?

But if the game is as good as, or better than it was in Y2K the supporting cast is not exactly . . . well, as supportive as they once were.

Rory McIlroy has been anointed the heir apparent, fueled by his Honda Classic victory that featured Woods at his Sunday best; Donald demonstrated an impressive level of moxie with his Transitions Championship victory to reclaim the top ranking; and Phil Mickelson has won three green jackets since the changes in ’02 and outplayed Woods mano a mano this year at Pebble Beach.

He may be back, but the others are certainly better.

“I’m just looking forward to hopefully getting myself in contention and giving myself a chance and maybe coming up against the best player of  . . . maybe the best player ever, definitely the best player of the last 20 years,” McIlroy said.

In some ways this week’s Masters brings Woods full circle. A chapter defined by trees – the one he hit in November 2009 that began the slide and the one he hit from under (Eisenhower Tree) during last year’s Masters that, although he tied for fourth place, landed him on the DL – is now driven by a singular climb to reach Nicklaus’ major landmark.

It’s an ascent that began at Augusta National in 1997 and appears destined to end there.