Woods' improved driving could lead to more Masters titles


If the 924 days Tiger Woods endured between official PGA Tour victories seemed difficult, the next week may be akin to an eternity. Woods’ caddie Joe LaCava spoke for many on Sunday at Bay Hill when he figured his boss, “probably wishes the Masters was tomorrow.”

Woods heads down Magnolia Lane fresh off a “W” for just the third time in his career, a statistical curiosity that probably has more to do with his pedestrian record at The Players Championship, which preceded the year’s first Grand Slam soiree until 2007, than an indifference toward spring golf.

In fact, Woods’ less-than-Tiger-like record at TPC Sawgrass – where he has one victory in 14 starts and just four top-10 finishes – may also shed some light on why he seemed so excited about next week’s Masters.

“I've gone into Augusta with wins and without wins,” said Woods following his five-stroke victory on Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. “You're looking for one week, that's all. Just hopefully everything comes together for that one week. I understand how to play Augusta National, and it's just a matter of executing the game plan.”

For the record just one of Woods’ four Masters’ victories followed a triumph in his previous start – in 2001, after his lone Players’ victory. Some consider it no coincidence that before the next year’s Masters the venerable layout would receive an extensive nip/tuck that included new tee boxes on nine holes and several fairway and bunker changes.

Whether the powers at Augusta National in fact “Tiger-proofed” the Georgia gem is a debate for another day, but the fact remains Woods – who Jack Nicklaus once predicted would win more green jackets than he and Arnold Palmer combined (10) – is 2-for-9 on the new and improved layout.

The last two years, Woods has finished tied for fourth at Augusta National on a “one-dimensional swing” and a tee ball that was average, at best. He ranked in the middle of the pack in ’11 and ’10 (T-31 and T-37, respectively, in fairways hit) and has ranked better than 29th in fairways hit just once since the makeover in 2002.

Truth is, Woods’ proficiency off the tee has steadily declined at Augusta National, where angles to certain hole locations are often more important than distance, since a career-best tie for 12th in fairways hit in 1998.

From this reality is born Woods’ optimism on the metaphorical eve of the year’s first major tilt. Despite Hank Haney’s claims in the recently-released “The Big Miss,” Woods has largely gotten rid of the . . . well, big miss.

In the book, which was released on Tuesday, Haney describes a man who “played the driver with a lot of fear.” Yet the new version has shown if not a level of confidence off the tee, then at least a measure of proficiency.

Woods is currently 14th on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy having hit 68 percent of his fairways in 4 ¾ events (he withdrew from the WGC-Cadillac Championship earlier this month after 11 holes on Sunday). In 15 previous seasons on Tour he’d never ranked higher than 54th in driving accuracy, although that year (2000) he did maintain a higher percent of fairways hit (71 percent).

Even more compelling for the argument that Woods may be better prepared for the unique rigors of Augusta National was his performance at Bay Hill, a mini-major layout made even more demanding by Sunday’s fierce winds.

For the week he hit 36 of 56 fairways including an opening nine holes on Sunday that featured just one miss, at No. 9 – and even that was by inches.

“I enjoyed the progression we made this week,” Woods said. “Each day there was a little bit of fine tuning here and there, and we were able to make those adjustments, which was good, and especially with the conditions getting more difficult on the weekend. I was able to hit some really good shots the last two days, and that's a very good sign going into Augusta.”

When asked if he’d ever seen Woods control his golf ball better than he did at Bay Hill swing coach Sean Foley offered a bit of ominous insight: “Pretty much every day at the Medalist (Woods’ South Florida club).”

It was always assumed that Woods’ climb to Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships would be littered with copious amounts of Augusta National green, but as new tee boxes were added and each year passed without a victory that assumption gave way to a new reality.

But Woods’ recent success with his driver brings into focus the notion that the powers had somehow “Tiger-proofed” Augusta National from the tee box forward. If Woods continues to drive the ball with authority it could be a sign he’s taken the lead in a virtual arms race.

Following his victory on Sunday at Bay Hill, Woods was asked his thoughts on the possibility that with a victory at the Masters he will tie Nicklaus for second on the all-time Tour wins list at 73.

“That's nice, but I'm looking forward to more of the green jacket part of it than tying Jack,” Woods smiled. “Jack's had an amazing career and he's won a bunch of tournaments. But also, he's won more majors than anybody else. So I'm looking forward to my opportunities this year.”

There is only one of Nicklaus’ marks Woods cares about and somehow that mountain suddenly seems a little more manageable.