Unmistakably, unbelievably, unconditionally, Tiger-mania is back. Twenty-one years after he made red shirts a thing on Sundays, Tiger Woods returns to the sacred turf where it all began, where the most extravagant fist-pump in golf knocked over the old order, where the game was reborn in his image, the Masters.
If the first coming of Woods at Augusta National 21 years ago was characterised by shock and awe, the resurrection is one of gratitude and relief. We thought these days were gone.
It was only ten months ago that police officers in Florida were inviting him to walk in a straight line while pickled in prescription drugs, and posting the results online. The mugshot that went around the world was a cruel commentary on the scale of Woods’ decline.
Yet here he is, pain free and swinging like it was 1997. His second place finish at the Valspar Championship, followed by fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational were vibrant confirmation of a sustained recovery from the broken days of last summer following a fourth operation to fuse the damaged vertebrae in his troublesome back.
He closed to within a stroke of the lead at both events on the back-nine on Sunday, utterly transforming the mood around the game.
Boom time for the big boys
It is not as if 2018 is short of storylines. Rory McIlroy’s return to golf’s epicentre with a first victory in 18 months at the Arnold Palmer Invitational has raised the prospect of his joining the only five players to win the grand slam of all four majors should he triumph at the Masters.
Three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson’s slotted his first win in five years at the WGC-Mexico Championship. Bubba Watson, a double winner at Augusta, ended his two-year drought with a hefty success at the Genesis Open, and added the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship in Austin with a thumping win.
World no.1 Dustin Johnson sounded the horn with victory at the first tournament of the year in Hawaii, no.2 Jon Rahm and no.3 Justin Thomas chalked the ‘W’ at the Career Builder Challenge and Honda Classic, respectively, while Jason Day weighed in at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines.
Only Jordan Spieth among the game’s youthful vanguard has failed to hit the net in 2018, but with three majors to his name by the age of 23 and a stellar record at the Masters, where his record reads 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 11th, he can never be counted out in the second week of April. But all of these chunky threads amount to knots on cotton compared to a Woods bicep curl on the first tee at Augusta.
Moving the needle
The viewing figures in the United States for the Valspar, where he rolled in a 43-footer at the penultimate hole to give himself a shot at Paul Casey’s lead down 18, were higher than any major tournament in 2017 outside the Masters. The needle will be spinning off the dial should he be sat before Jim Nantz in the Butler Cabin on Masters Sunday draped in green for a fifth time.
“I don't want to get too high or too low,” Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava, said after Bay Hill. “We don't want to get ahead of ourselves. But you're seeing improvement each week. I know you hear that from him, too. But it just seems like he's getting better and better with his swing and trusting it more, which I think is huge.”
LaCava described his performance at Bay Hill as a ball-striking clinic, the tee shots at 9 and 16, where he went out of bounds, aside.The tool that matters most, the putter, was back to its lethal best inside the kill zone from ten feet, scoring an impressive 32 from 32. Since Augusta National gives the wayward drivers every chance, even a partially restored Woods would fancy himself, and this version is demonstrably in advance of that.
Woods last contested the Masters in 2015, finishing 17th. Missing out on the WGC-Dell Match Play allowed him to update his course notes and familiarise himself with the Bent Bermuda grasses that harden into porcelain on the greens.
“I miss playing there. I've been there for the [Champions] dinner, and as great as that is, it's frustrating knowing that I'm young enough to play the event where some of the other champions are not, and I just have not been able to physically do it. I've had a lot of success there, too, so really looking forward to getting up there and doing a bit of work and getting a feel for the golf course and basically feel for playing that style of golf again.”
The magic of Augusta
Just as the players pop a cork the day the invite drops for the Masters, so do chroniclers of golf raise a glass when the inbox glows green with an Augusta National gate pass. It reads simply “Masters Confirmation Card”, permitting entry to one of the best preserved sporting pageants on planet earth, and that might be understating it. What you see via the broadcast lens is arguably even more impressive when appropriated in the flesh.
The old fruit farm on the Georgia/South Carolina border has evolved into golf’s horticultural masterpiece. The plains and hollows so coveted by tournament founder Bobby Jones and course architect Alister MacKenzie in the early 1930s flood the olfactory senses with the scent of pine.
From the doors of the old plantation house at the top of the hill the course falls away towards Rae’s Creek and Amen Corner, its dramatic undulations forming a tree-lined garden of verdant velvet bordered by exotic blooms.
That the players return each year to the same majestic spot, a feature not available to the game’s three remaining majors; the US Open, The Open Championship or the PGA Championship, which migrate around a variety of courses on their respective rosters, augments the magic.
McIlroy’s win at Bay Hill nudged him to the top of the betting at the expense of Woods. In truth there is a case to be made for each of the contenders listed above and a few more besides. Yet the money piling on Woods is not only about nostalgia.
In his 18 appearances as a pro Woods has yet to miss a Masters cut, and only five times has he finished outside the top ten, posting four wins, two 2nds, one 3rd, three 4ths, a 5th, a 6th and an 8th. None in the millennial era comes close to his resume.
Chasing destiny and Jack Nicklaus
His form at the Valspar and Bay Hill is a genuine barometer. We can pretty much discount the four years following his last PGA Tour victory in 2013, each one blitzed by injury. Indeed Woods has played only 25 events in this period. That he is anywhere near contention after posting a video of his first tentative swings of this latest comeback only last November is astonishing.
You might argue that the most important feature of his peak years was not his ability to crunch the ball miles or conjure the most remarkable responses around the greens, but his temperament, an iron psyche that never wavered when he stood over a putt. That, as well as a healthy body, is what Woods brings to this Masters, belief that he is back in the game. A mea culpa from me. I thought he was cooked, that he would never win again, let alone add another major to his haul.
Should he make this major no.15, then the pursuit of the fabled 18 claimed by Jack Nicklaus is very much a part of the golfing landscape again. Eleven years after his last major triumph, that would be some tale. Nicklaus was 46 when he won the final major of his collection at the Masters in 1986. Woods is 42, plenty of time yet to fulfil the destiny we always thought would be his.