So this is it for Tiger Woods: the first Masters of the rest of his life—assuming he shows up at all. Even Ben Hogan, the most reclusive of the greats, continued to play Augusta until he was 54, finishing tenth in his swan song. Tiger Woods is 39 and won’t stop playing the Masters anytime soon. His best chance to get a 15th major title—to say nothing of 16 and beyond—will come at Augusta, the course he knows best in the world. In the space of nine years, he won four times there: in 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2005. But since then, there have been seven Sundays where he was in position to get No. 5 and couldn’t summon what he needed when he needed it. And now he makes his first trip to Augusta with the chipping yips.
You know the course. Augusta’s fairway grass is about as long as Roger Staubach’s hair, circa 1965. The ball just sits there, teetering on nothing, begging to be thinned or chunked. This is not going to be easy for Tiger, this first Masters of the rest of his life.
Woods is a proud man. It is his strength and his weakness. For years, he would grind out a Friday 70 or 71, when he looked like he was shooting 77, and make another cut. That was then. Now office pools are taking action on whether Tiger will play 72 holes at Augusta this year. He’s never missed a cut there as a pro, and has no WDs, but lately he packs it in at the first hint of gluteus deactivation or some other medical trauma. He’s not who he was. We can see it, but maybe Woods cannot. Pride can blind a person.
His own pride has incurred two deep wounds. In 2009, he ran over a hydrant and out oozed the tawdry secrets of his sex life for the world to see. Earlier this year, Woods bladed and fatted a series of chip shots showing the world the utter confusion under his hood. Some golf commentators have already written Tiger’s professional obit, for the simple reason that no great golfer has ever shown such ineptitude before turning 40. More likely, this mess is a passing storm. Don’t expect any miracles at Augusta. You’ll only be setting yourself up for disappointment. If he tees it up, do expect him to play 72 holes. Last year, a score of 146 made the cut. Woods can shoot 146, even if he has to use his putter from 30 yards off the green.
At the 1996 Masters, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus played a practice round with Woods, renowned amateur. After it, Big Jack made a proclamation so audacious he later downgraded it to a joke: “Arnold and I both agreed that you could take his Masters and my Masters and add them together and this kid should win more than that.” Taken literally, Jack’s math added up to a minimum of 11 green coats for Tiger. But Nicklaus was assessing talent and promise and assuming his own life’s path. Now we know better: Getting a fifth would be an astounding achievement.
Palmer, wise in his own way, has serious doubts if Tiger will get it. In his most intimate conversations, he talks about how every golfer eventually loses “the edge,” the self-belief that allows the game’s elite players to practice with manic intensity and feel a sense of ownership late on Sunday. Arnold says you can’t win without the edge, not the tournaments you most want. He also says that once the edge is gone you can’t get it back. Post-hydrant, Tiger has won at Bay Hill (Arnold’s place) and at Muirfield (Jack’s). He’s won at Firestone and Doral. But Tiger Woods doesn’t need the edge to win in those places. Arnold is talking about the PGA, the British and U.S. Opens, the Masters especially—the ones Woods still needs “to let the legend grow.”
That phrase, invented by Tiger’s father, seems 100 years old, doesn’t it? We won’t be watching Woods at Augusta this year to see if he can grow his legend. We’ll be looking to see what kind of fight is left in the man. It brings to mind one of Tiger’s favorite phrases: “Baby steps.”