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After winning at Bay Hill, Tiger Woods is primed for Augusta

Photo: Scott A. Miller/US Presswire

Woods buried the birdie putt at the 18th, his fourth one-putt in five holes, to win for the sixth time at Bay Hill.

One of the first putting lessons Tiger Woods ever received at Augusta National Golf Club included a pack of Marlboro Lights. The year was 1996, and as he prepared for his second appearance at the Masters, Woods was playing a practice round alongside Ben Crenshaw, the defending champion. Crenshaw's caddie, Carl Jackson, liked to keep cigarettes in his bib for such occasions.

"I would always throw down the pack to suggest where a certain pin would be," says Jackson, who first caddied at the Masters in 1961. "I'd suggest that Ben try certain putts, and then Tiger would follow. Tiger followed Ben on every one of those greens."

Woods missed the cut but took another step in his growth on the most beguiling greens in the world. "Before he left, I could tell he was in a hurry, but he found me just to say thank you," Jackson recalls. Woods then told him something else: "Those pins were exactly where you said they were going to be." The following year Woods won the Masters by a tournament-record 12 strokes.

Woods has never stopped learning — about reading greens, the dynamics of his swing or the mechanics of his putting stroke — and that thirst for improvement has carried him through dominant stretches, dry patches and every level in between. After an 8 1/2-month layoff following left knee surgery, Woods returned to competition in February with a balky putting stroke. So before he teed it up at last week's Arnold Palmer Invitational, he revisited some of the putting basics he'd been taught as a child by his late father, Earl.

This was the equivalent of a master artist digging through his earliest drawings, and the results were undeniable. Woods unleashed a putter so pure in his victory at Bay Hill that the time that had passed since his last win, at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines last June, seemed to vanish into the dusk. He led the field in putting and rallied from five shots back in the final round to match his largest comeback on the PGA Tour. He made a remarkable sand save at 14 to stay within a shot of leader Sean O'Hair, caught him with a 26-foot birdie putt at 15, got up and down from 109 yards to seize the outright lead on the next, and, after a rare mistake at 17, dropped a 16-foot birdie putt at the 18th for the victory. Not bad for a guy making only his third start since the layoff.

Woods is no longer a convalescing golfer, but one with major appointments to keep: the Masters, where he has four wins; the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, where he won in 2002; the British Open at Turnberry, a links course that demands the precision he thrives on; and the PGA Championship at Hazeltine, where he finished second in '02.

After more than a decade of chasing and breaking records, the arithmetic for Woods comes down to this. If he peaks during those four weeks, he could tie Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 professional majors — Woods's holy grail — and at the same time match the Grand Slam that Bobby Jones claimed 79 years ago. The hazards are many, and the competition on the Tour may be the deepest Woods has ever faced. The math, however, is right.

"I think it's a big ask," says Rod Pampling, a two-time Tour winner. "It's one of those deals like the Triple Crown. Even if you have the favorite horse, it's still no guarantee. And they only have 12 horses to run against. Tiger has 100."

Woods has come close to a Grand Slam before, streaking to four straight majors during the 2000 and '01 seasons, but the golf world is more complicated now. Padraig Harrington has won the last two majors and three of the last six. Phil Mickelson and Geoff Ogilvy have two victories apiece this season.

Charles Howell, Woods's friend, neighbor and occasional playing partner, was recently handicapping the Masters when the subject of the winner came up. One reporter picked Mickelson. Howell's eyes grew wide.

"Tiger's driving it better than ever," Howell warned, and his point was proved as Woods kept pounding the fairways at Bay Hill.

Howell says the improved driving comes from Woods's ability to remain stable on his reconstructed left leg, something he couldn't do while playing hurt. "He had to hit fades last year because he had to keep coming up off that left leg," Howell says. "Now he can draw the ball," the preferred shot shape on many of Augusta's holes.

Woods won four green jackets by age 29, but only one of those came in the last six years. Augusta National is no longer the wide-open carpet of fairway on which Woods used to hit short irons into par-5s. The course has grown rough, been lengthened (by some 500 yards since Woods first won in 1997) and tightened, and, in the parlance of the day, generally become more Tiger-proofed. The last two years have seen the rise of the scrapper — Zach Johnson, a short knocker who finished two ahead of Woods in 2007, and Trevor Immelman, who used accuracy and average length to beat Woods by three last year.

"In times gone by, the fairways were a little more open and Tiger could be a little wayward with his driver," says Nick Price, who shares the course record at the Masters, a nine-under-par 63. "If there is a question at all about Tiger, it's always been the consistency of his driver. Last year it caught up with him a little bit. That's what he needs to focus on. Whether he hits a wood, two-iron or five-iron, if he puts the ball in the fairway, he will be a serious contender."

If accuracy is more of a factor than it used to be at the Masters, it remains the essence of the U.S. Open. The test at Bethpage Black will be 18 muscular holes. Dealing with a gallery that likes to get up close and personal with players will be a factor as well. ("Ti-guh, I'm the Ti-guh of building supplies," one fan shouted at Woods when he won at the Long Island course in 2002. "You need a two-by-faw, I'm the guy to see.")

That year Woods and Mickelson dueled for New York's heart. Mickelson, without a major at the time, won the fans. Woods, the only player to finish under par, took the trophy. Sergio Garci;a, endlessly regripping and waggling the club, took tons of grief.

"It was a sports happening for the metropolitan area," says Joe Rehor, Bethpage's longtime director of golf. "The fans were shaking the earth."

This year Woods will find a layout that plays more than 200 yards longer than it did in 2002, when it measured 7,214 yards. With graduated rough to penalize drives that stray far off-line — a feature the U.S. Golf Association didn't introduce until '06, at Winged Foot — the Black will offer few reprieves.

Woods won the first two majors in 2002, but his Grand Slam dream died at Muirfield. This year's British Open will be his first crack at playing Turnberry.

"It's the Pebble Beach of the British Open rotation," says Price, who won the last British at Turnberry, in 1994. Unlike most links layouts, on which the holes play into the wind or downwind, Price says Turnberry challenges golfers with a breeze that blows across most holes. A player must control his ball — which Price, '77 champion Tom Watson and '86 winner Greg Norman excelled at. Woods sets the bar in that area today.

"He showed the ability to manage his game at Hoylake [in 2006], when he used driver just once all week," Price says of the course on which Woods won his third claret jug. "They've lengthened Turnberry some [by 277 yards, to 7,224], but that's not going to frighten him at all."

Says Watson, who won the British five times and memorably edged Nicklaus by a shot at Turnberry, "Like Muirfield, Turnberry has a beauty to it in that you have movement of the land, compared to the flatness of a Troon or a St. Andrews. You're hitting from uphill lies, downhill lies and sidehill lies. The course plays short, so I don't think Tiger will pull out the driver too many times. You do not hit the ball in bunkers in links golf and end up with much success. They are like little water hazards. When Tiger took all of the bunkers out of play at Hoylake, almost everybody else was hitting drivers, and they'd make mistakes."

If woods topples the field in the first three majors, he will chase history at the site of one of his most stinging defeats. Hazeltine is where Rich Beem danced on the 72nd green at the 2002 PGA Championship and denied Woods his third major of the year with a devil-may-care attitude and a thumping five-wood.

"I remember pretty much everything from that week," says Beem. "It's nice for my children to think I beat arguably the greatest player of all time. For me, personally, I'm simply glad I won the PGA Championship."

At 7,674 yards — up from 7,360 in 2002 — the Minnesota course will demand long tee shots, but accuracy is the key. "They can grow the rough there as easy as anyone in the country," Beem says. "You can hit it as long as you want, but it's not going to help you if you don't hit it straight, brother."

Asked how Hazeltine — with its gnarly rough and strategically placed bunkers — fits Woods's game, Beem says there isn't a course that doesn't set up for Tiger. "He's driving it so much better," Beem says. "His iron play is amazing, his short game even better, and his putter is off the charts. As high as he hits it, you'd be silly not to say he's one of the favorites."

Long before he gets to Hazeltine, though, Woods first must conquer the Masters. Every major championship season begins at Augusta National, and no Grand Slam can be won without slipping on a green jacket.

Jackson will be there too, looping for Crenshaw as always. Woods has struggled with his putter at the last two Masters. Jackson knows Augusta's greens as well as anyone. Any chance for another tutorial?

"I refuse to bother him," Jackson says. "When he's in Augusta, he's there to take care of business."

It's probably just as well. Jackson doesn't smoke anymore.

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