With all due respect to Jimmy Walker’s incredible start to the wrap-around season—three wins in eight events—the big question at the 2014 Masters won’t be about him. It will be the same one we asked last year: Can Tiger Woods win his 15th major?
We all know that Tiger hasn’t won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open, and that he hasn’t won at Augusta since 2005, but the reasons for his prolonged drought aren’t as simple as people tend to think. The most common explanation for Tiger’s inability to win that 15th major is that he’s lost his confidence because of turmoil in his personal life, injuries, or because he’s just not playing as well as he used to. In other words, it’s all his fault. While a lack of confidence and injuries are no doubt part of the explanation, there is a much bigger reason why Woods has been stuck on 14 majors for so long: Other players are using Tiger’s game against him.
Think back to the 1997 Masters and that long stretch of years when Tiger truly dominated the game. He was able to do it because he hit shots that no one else did. Other guys couldn’t launch that high, soft 250-yard 3-iron, or drive it as far as Tiger, or play his amazing short-game shots. When you’re competing against someone who can hit shots you’re not capable of, it can be mentally devastating. You start to think, “I can’t beat this guy.” That’s the primary reason why so many players folded down the stretch against Tiger.
But that’s not true anymore. In fact, Tiger’s rivals are now using his own shots against him. Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott and Dustin Johnson are all capable of hitting the shots that Tiger used to have all to himself, thereby eroding his advantage. Equipment has also added to the narrowing of the gap, as the advent of hybrids has allowed more players to hit those high, soft, 250-yard shots. There just aren’t as many shots in Tiger’s repertoire that only he can hit. He’s become a victim of his own success.
The same thing happened with Jack Nicklaus more than a generation ago. Nicklaus bombed his drives over doglegs and hit pitches into greens when other players were hitting 5-irons. Over time, Nicklaus’s rivals adapted and learned how to play the game the same way, which made it harder for the Bear to win. The difference isn’t that Nicklaus or Tiger started playing worse, but that their rivals got better by watching them.
So does this mean that Tiger is just another player now? Not at all. He still has 14 major championships, and on Sunday afternoon at the Masters, the guy who’s been there before always has an advantage over the guy who hasn’t. If Tiger wins at Augusta, it might free him mentally to win majors No. 16, 17, 18 and even 19. And this year’s major venues set up perfectly for him: He’s already won at Augusta four times, won the 2006 British Open at Hoylake, the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla, and finished second at the 2005 U.S. Open and third at the 1999 U.S. Open, both at Pinehurst. But if Woods doesn’t win a major this year, the road to 18 will get much more difficult. Why? Because Tiger has already shown everyone the map to major championship success.