Augusta—Tiger Woods heads back to Augusta National to resume his pursuit of a 15th major championship with a firmer grip on the realities of his game and fitness than he could claim in his long-awaited Masters return last year.
“This year, to be able to ramp up a schedule and be able to know what I can and can’t do going into the event, is a lot more comforting than this has been in the previous years because it’s been kind of an unknown going into that event,” said Woods, who played 18 tournaments in his 2018 comeback season along with the Ryder Cup and has teed it up in five events this season.
“I’m right there where I need to be,” Woods said in March. “I’ve gotten a little bit more consistent with my play, and I think that everything is headed on track toward April.”
For Woods, April is virtually synonymous with the Masters.
He won the first of his four Green Jackets there in historic style in 1997, completed the “Tiger Slam” there in 2001, successfully defended the crown in 2002 and won in dramatic style in 2005 with a chip-in to force a playoff in which he beat Chris DiMarco.
Reason to be optimistic
In 2010, Woods chose the Masters for his return to action five months after humiliating revelations of infidelity that ended his marriage.
But his appearance last year was his first since 2015, a return that followed questions whether debilitating back trouble and multiple surgeries would allow him ever to compete again at a high level.
Such was the hype surrounding Woods’s comeback last year, fuelled by top-five finishes in two tuneup events, he went into the 2018 Masters a betting favourite—but didn’t manage to post a round under par until Sunday.
He would go on to win the PGA Tour Championship last September, and has been in contention in the last two majors he played.
Nevertheless, expectations are more moderate this year as Woods comes off a quarter-final exit at the WGC-Match Play that left him irked -- but lifted him two places to 12th in the world rankings.
Rory McIlroy—chasing a career Grand Slam—and world number one Dustin Johnson are favoured ahead of Woods—the 43-year-old superstar trying to become just the fourth player to win a major title 11 years on from a Grand Slam victory.
The most recent to do so was Ben Crenshaw when he added the 1995 Masters to his 1984 triumph at Augusta.
Jack Nicklaus, whose record of 18 major titles once seemed firmly in Woods’s reach, has himself shown that age needn’t be a barrier at Augusta National, swooping for a victory in 1986 that made him, at 46, the oldest Masters winner and the second-oldest to win any major.
Woods has been steady, if not spectacular this year. A neck issue that forced him out of the Arnold Palmer Invitational was, Woods said, a problem that first flared at the Genesis Open in Los Angeles in February and worsened at the WGC-Mexico in Mexico City.
“It started to get a little tighter and tighter as I played more holes in Mexico,” Woods said at the Players Championship, acknowledging that it began to affect his putting.
It was behind him by the Players Championship Woods said, and some pundits reasoned that his exit at the WGC Match Play—after a confidence-building round of 16 win over McIlroy—may have been a blessing in disguise -- giving him a bit of rest.
Woods’s caddie Joe LaCava told reporters he thought the Match Play was “a big step in the right direction”.
“Definitely reason to be optimistic,” he said.