Masters 2015: Can Tiger Woods Contend at Augusta National?

April 7, 2015

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The Tiger Woods Magical Mystery Tour continued Tuesday at Augusta National. A day after Woods was spotted bopping to hip-hop on the practice range and giving his ex-coach Sean Foley a how-the-hell-are-you bear hug, Woods once again was all smiles and back-pats and one-liners.

“There’s an observation that you feel looser…,” a reporter began in Woods’s press conference Tuesday afternoon.

“Yeah,” Woods deadpanned, “I’m a lot more flexible, you’re right.”

Ba-dum bum.

Who is this guy? And what did he do with Tiger Woods? Sure, we’ve seen glimpses of a more personable Woods in recent years, but the Kumbaya version — did we mention he also doled out hugs to Zach Johnson and Steve Stricker? — making the rounds at Augusta this week? He more resembles Bill Clinton than Ben Hogan.

Woods is even playing in the Par-3 Contest on Wednesday, for the first time since 2004, with Charlie and Sam on the bag. “To have my kids out there and be able to share that with them, it’s special,” Woods said, his eyes widening as they often do when he talks about his children. The young’uns, along with Woods’s belle, Lindsey Vonn, snuck inside the practice area ropes Tuesday and got a squeeze of their own from Dad before he returned to stroking five-footers.

Woods’s agent, Mark Steinberg, had to rip his client away from a pack of autograph-seekers so Woods wouldn’t be late for his press conference.

“I don’t feel any different,” Woods said of his perceived peppiness. “I feel like I’m preparing to try and win the Masters.”

That notion was laughable as recently as just last week. But with Woods, opinions can change as quickly as the wind in Amen Corner. A stuffed approach here, a glowing review from Mark O’Meara there, and all of sudden Woods doesn’t seem like such a dark horse anymore.

“It was so positive, the vibe that I felt from what he was doing out there,” O’Meara told the Golf Channel after Woods and O’Meara played nine holes together Tuesday. “He looks good, he feels good. He hit a couple of loose shots out there, but not really that bad. The pitching looks fantastic.”

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Ah, yes, the chipping. The last few times we’ve seen Woods, his pitching was not so fantastic. Horrible would be a better word — in Isleworth last December, in Scottsdale in February, and most recently in Torrey Pines when he raised the white flag with a bum back after 12 holes. Since then, though, as Woods describes it, he has been doing his best impression of Rocky preparing for Drago in Siberia.

“I worked my ass off,” he said.

And here he sighed.

“People would never understand how much work I put into it to come back and do this again. But it was sunup to sundown, 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.”

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What “it” is — 100 buckets a day? Chipping drills until his hands bled? Benchpresses on a bed of nails? — Woods did not say exactly, other than to report that he seems to have sorted out his “release patterns.” The true state of his game, though, remains a mystery. McIlroy’s career Grand Slam run? A mere subplot in this 79th Masters. Bubba chasing his third green jacket in four tries? Meh. The story at this tournament, at least for now, is Woods’ form and, in particular, the caliber of his short game.

“I think that’s the easiest thing to fix,” said Phil Mickelson when asked about Woods’s chipping woes. “He’s won numerous tournaments because of his short game. I just don’t think it’s a hard thing to get back.”

As Woods completed his nine-hole practice session Tuesday morning, he was resplendent in a fuchsia Nike shirt. Swarms of fans ringed the 9th green and hundreds of camera flashes lit up the scene like a red-carpet premiere. Woods hit several putts and then walked just off the back of green to practice some chip shots to a putting surface that slopes hard from left to right and back to front. He skipped a couple of low, biting chips toward a tee that his caddie Joe LaCava had placed in the back-left of the green.

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Both shots stopped within a couple feet of the tee. Woods then turned his attention to a more difficult spot in the middle of the green, where LaCava had placed a tee with a ball on top of it. From a tight lie, Woods hit a couple of mini-flops that landed softly before curling down toward the tee. No signs of chunks, blades or yips. Not here, anyway.

O’Meara hit a nifty chip of his own that knocked the ball of the tee, drawing applause from the gallery.

“Oh, you got this one figured out now, don’t you?” Woods said.

“No, not really,” O’Meara said, laughing.

It was a nice note to end on. Woods and O’Meara called it a day, though not before – what else? – a warm embrace behind the green.

We won’t know until Thursday whether Woods’s game is truly beginning to click again. He goes off at 1:48 p.m. with Jimmy Walker and Jamie Donaldson. In the meantime, you can expect more hype, speculation and conjecture.

Which at least one major champion said was unfair to Woods.

“You know, you should just let him be,” Martin Kaymer said. “Let him play golf.”

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