Tiger Woods surprised many by claiming his 15th major title at Augusta National in 2019. Having held onto the Green Jacket for an extra seven months due to COVID-19 the question is now: Can he defend his title and get within two of Jack Nicklaus’ major record and equal the Golden Bear’s six Masters titles?
The superlatives to describe 2020 have been many and, in some cases, excessively overused.
Describing something as the new normal is just one of the in vogue ways to describe a bizarre year with little sense of normality.
However, the most common adjective to find its way into every news bulletin, politician’s press conference and almost every corner of the internet has been ‘unprecedented’.
And while most would be in agreement that the term has been used to the nth degree, there has been perhaps nothing in golf as unprecedented as the 2020 Masters Tournament this week.
Traditionally played during the first full week in April and as the first major of the year since long before the layout was ‘Tiger Proofed’, this year’s tournament will see the players taking on a course few, if any, will have experience with.
Yes, it is the same Augusta National Golf Club on Washington Rd, Augusta, where Woods has teed it up at 22 times and missed only one cut. However, the shift from April to November will likely see significant changes to how the course plays and the conditions.
Unlike each year when Spring in Georgia sees azaleas blooming and a layout that is kept to the best condition of any course around the world thanks to an unlimited budget, this year players will be visiting Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie’s design with Winter almost at the door step.
Of course being Augusta National, the layout will be presented exceptionally, and with unsubstantiated rumours of temperature controlled garden beds one might even see those famous azaleas surprisingly in bloom. However, any person lucky enough to play the tournament will tell you Masters week sees a very different Augusta National to the course the well-heeled members play the rest of the year.
Past champions like Woods are afforded playing rights, upon permission of course, outside tournament week, and invitees regularly visit in the months leading up to the event to familiarise themselves with the venue. But it is hard to imagine many have made such a trip in November when temperatures are falling and global offers of appearance money keep the world’s best players busy.
Exactly how the course will play will remain a mystery.
One thing is certain though, average temperatures in Augusta have a high of just 20ºC in November as opposed to 25ºC in April. With play going to late in the afternoon across all four rounds, there will be long shadows and chilly breezes across the closing holes – an issue more for Woods and his oft surgically repaired back than any other player in the field.
Since his return from spinal fusion surgery, the former World No.1 has struggled during colder weeks, where his joints and 44-year-old body fail to loosen up and allow for a fluid and powerful golf swing. It also limits practise ‘reps’ as Woods is fond of saying.
Beyond the date and weather, to once again use the most overused word of the year, this year’s Masters Tournament will feature another unprecedented characteristic.
Due to COVID-19, the event will be played without patrons – or crowds for those not familiar with Augusta National speak. And once again this is perhaps to Woods’ detriment over any other player in the field.
Tiger has spoken of struggling throughout the truncated 2020 PGA Tour schedule without galleries providing surges of support and the resultant energy, the lack thereof to be most evident on the grounds of arguably one of the most famous golf courses in the world.
“I miss the energy and just the positiveness that the fans bring and just that electricity,” he said recently. “That’s something that I’ve been playing in front of for over two decades.
“What we’re dealing with right now is not what we all want, but it’s our reality, and it’s the energy that’s just not quite the same without the fans.”
“It’s going to be very different without 40,000 people here.” – Tiger Woods on playing without patrons
The roars of Augusta rolling over the hills from the bottom of Amen Corner to the enormous oak tree fronting the clubhouse are legendary. And a Tiger roar is different than any other.
This is not classic hyperbole to elevate the status of one of only two golfers in the conversation as the greatest player of all-time.
Having personally been on the grounds last year for Woods’ comeback major win, the sound between a Tiger birdie at 13 and a Brooks Koepka eagle at the same hole are audibly different. The former stirs something within a person that cannot be explained, as players have stated many times over the years.
“I mean, I’ve heard it. I heard it at the PGA. You hear it here. You know any time he does something good, the fans are going to get excited and they are going to be loud, and that’s the following that he’s created,” Koepka said after the final round in 2019.
Those absent roars will of course rob the viewers of the theatre, but Tiger’s competition has faced the distinct disadvantage of knowing one of the game’s great closers has done something important. Even the second cheer once the roar-inducing score has been put up on the giant manually operated leaderboard facing the 18th green can emote chills.
And while the sounds of his success might be to the disadvantage of his rivals, so too does Tiger draw from the support and encouragement of the patrons – something
he will have to find within in November having rarely played golf without a sizeable quorum of interested observers during the past 20-plus years.
“It’s going to be very different without 40,000 people there,” Woods said at the BMW Championship. “That’s one of the things that we’ve noticed out here on Tour already is that the experience of having to deal with the movement of the crowds and the noise … and the roars aren’t going to go up.
“We just don’t have the same type of energy the distractions as well. At Augusta National you just have all those roars that would go up of somebody did something somewhere and then if you have – obviously the pairings, we know who that would probably be, we’re not going to have any of that now. So scoreboard watching and trying to figure out what’s going on, there aren’t a lot of big leaderboards out there, so that will be very different.”
Beyond the change of date, weather and lack of patrons, Woods will also arrive feeling slightly peculiar about his chances, with the 82-time PGA Tour winner set to play The Masters for just the fourth time as a professional with only one top-10 recorded in the same calendar year.
Woods’ tie for ninth at one of his favourite hunting grounds, Torrey Pines, came way back in January behind Victorian winner Marc Leishman, and the 2019 champion was not close to the mark in the two majors played so far in 2020 – missing the cut at the US Open at Winged Foot and sharing 37th at the US PGA courtesy of a final round 67.
This may not present the worst omen for Woods, who addressed the state of his game at Winged Foot, where cooler weather, long rough, an inconsistent game and a golf course he has never played particularly well saw him miss his second cut at the layout in as many US Open starts there.
“I didn’t drive the ball as well as I needed to. Iron play was pretty much the way it has been. It’s been good, and I finally putted well. But on this golf course it’s imperative that you hit fairways, and I did not do that,” Woods said.
The three previous occasions that Woods has entered with as little form, saw him record finishes of tied fourth in 2010 – in his first start of the year following the public exposure of his personal life – tied fourth in 2011 and tied 17th in 2015 after withdrawing and missing the cut in his only previous starts of the year.
Woods’ familiarity and enjoyment of Augusta National and his much touted penchant for winning often at comfortable venues has clearly helped him in the past.
“Throughout the years, I also accumulated a lot of knowledge how to play it (Augusta National) under different conditions,” Woods said last year. “Playing practice rounds with guys who have won here a lot, who understand how to play it; and then to be a part of the entire process of having to compete as they have evolved the golf course and trying to understand how to play it, it changes from when they do change a few things and having to adjust that; adjust how the strategy is going to be applied to those specific holes.
“I’ve got a pretty good little library in my head of how to play the golf course.”
Although the fall in form that has seen Woods drop from inside the top-10 in the world rankings at the conclusion of 2019 to outside the top-30, will surely be a concern.
As he ages and knows he is not the same dominant player who would win week-in and week-out with even his B-game, Tiger will be aware that as long as he is healthy he will have a chance at Augusta – where a 46-year-old Nicklaus defied the odds to win in 1986 and past champions have a long history of contending – combined with the benefits of modern science.
“I’ve got a pretty good little library in my head of how to play the golf course.” – Tiger Woods
“I think its training and nutrition. Exercise programs have changed,” Woods says. “They have progressed. The treatment protocols have changed. Guys are able to take care of their bodies for a longer period of time.
“We know how important it is to eat perfectly and to train and also the recovery tactics that you have to employ, especially as you get older. As we get older, it sucks hopping in those ice baths, but it’s just part of the deal.
“I don’t have to hit the ball 340 yards. I can still plod my way around the golf course. We saw it here with Jack in ‘98; he had a chance to win. We saw Tom Watson at 59 had it on his putter.
“In this sport, we’re able to play a much longer period of time, and you’re just seeing guys that are taking care of their bodies a lot better and able to play longer.”
Set to turn 45 in December, Woods will believe he can be a factor at Augusta as long as he can swing a golf club, where course knowledge and management trumps the power and excessively low scoring required to win a regular Tour event.
Despite only two top-10s at other majors since turning 40, Woods’ career scoring record is the best of all-time at Augusta National. His 70.83 average shots per round is almost a half shot better than the next best active players in Phil Mickelson and Jason Day, with Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy not far behind.
Beyond his scoring, Woods will take solace that on his way to victory in 2019 he ranked 47th in putting and 44th in driving distance, while leading the field in greens in regulation for the week based on his current performance in each category.
Woods, although positive at the US Open, has not been at his best when it comes to iron play of late, with his Greens In Regulation numbers for the 2019-20 PGA Tour season ranking him at 157th (had he played enough rounds to officially rank). His putting has been even worse.
But he often chooses to play the biggest tournaments held at the toughest venues
and the natural boost in confidence upon driving down Magnolia Lane should take care of the rest.
When it comes to distance, Tiger is certainly no slouch, averaging 299.4 yards off the tee last season. But power is not everything at Augusta, and Woods no longer needs to lead the field to take hold of the event that favours players with sufficient power combined with control.
RIGHT: Woods and caddie, Joe LaCava, have a wealth of Augusta National experience. PHOTO: Getty Images.
There are many tee shots where the likes of the men’s games newest major champion Bryson DeChambeau and Tiger himself will need to take less than driver, a skill Woods has excelled at throughout his career. And the club’s attempts to put more mid and long irons in the hands of the world’s best certainly plays into the hands of arguably golf’s best ever iron player.
As previously mentioned, older players are no strangers to the top of the leaderboard at Augusta. Past champions like Fred Couples and Bernhard Langer regularly put themselves into the mix over the early rounds. And with 28 of the 83 previous winners being over the age of 35 – seven of whom were over 40 – a keen student of the history of the game like Woods will know his chances of attempting to add a sixth green jacket are well and truly alive.
A two-time runner-up at Augusta, Woods has played once since the US Open and prior to heading for America’s Peach State. Tiger finishing T72 in his ZOZO Championship title defense at Sherwood Country Club in Southern California, with the tournament having been moved from Japan due to COVID-19.
Having missed the cut easily at the US Open and failed to fire in California, Woods’ preparation might seem light. But when considering his chances of winning major 16, it must be remembered no one in the modern era has juggled their schedule to peak at the majors better than Tiger.
And if there is still any doubt Woods can win, just ask the man himself.
“The plan is to prepare the same way,” Woods says. “It worked last year, so yeah, I’ve got a blueprint for what I need to do and hopefully I can have the same feelings.”
Feelings and a result that would set up a chance for a seventh green jacket in just five months’ time?
Now that would be unprecedented.