Tiger Woods finds his Masters voice again and says he’s there to win
FORMER world No 1 talks up his chances for fifth title while rivals reject view that it's a two-horse race
A resurgent Tiger Woods returned to the Masters stage on Tuesday night with the most emphatic statement for his rivals, declaring: “I’m here for the green jacket.”
The four-time champion at Augusta ended 30 months without a PGA Tour victory when he surged to a five-stroke victory at Bay Hill 10 days ago, and left no doubt about his determination to seize a fifth title here.
Woods, despite the drastic swing changes enforced by coach Sean Foley, has continued his comeback apace and said his ball-striking was back to its best. “Consistently, with this type of control, it has been a few years,” he said. “As far as having the speed and pop in my game, it has been a very long time.”
He tees off in tomorrow’s first round of the Masters seeking both a fifth green jacket and his first major championship win since 2008 — taking him to 15 in total, one step closer to Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18.
At 36, playing in his 18th Masters and with 72 tour wins to his name, Woods employed a little reverse psychology in portraying himself as the underdog compared to younger, even more powerful players.
“I think I have more shots than I did in 2000,” he said. “I guess I’m not driving the ball as far, but I’m longer than I was in 2000. So it’s a different game. The guys are much taller, much bigger, much more athletic.
“The game has become bigger and stronger. When I played back in 2000, the big carry was 280 yards. That was a big carry over a corner. Now that has been moved out to 315, 320. It’s just a different number now.”
In 2000 Woods was en route to the ‘Tiger Slam’ of four successive major titles. So it sounded ominous to hear him say yesterday: “I feel like I’m hitting the ball just as consistently day in, day out as I did then.”
Woods, who heads out for the opening round alongside Miguel Ángel Jiménez and South Korea’s Sang-Moon Bae, could join Nicklaus in second on the all-time US PGA win list with a 73rd overall crown, nine shy of Sam Snead’s record. “I would like the green jacket more,” Woods said. “I know the 73 would be a by-product of it, but I’m here for the green jacket.”
Trying to cut a more generous and responsible figure in the aftermath of his sex scandal, Woods explained that he was learning at Augusta how to impart advice to younger golfers — in much the same fashion as he absorbed secrets to this course from a practice round with Nicklaus in 1995, as a 19-year-old amateur.
“Jack that year told me about some of the putts he had hit over the years, and the strategy on how to play certain flags,” Woods said.
As a relative elder statesman, he has been thrust here into the role of a mentor, asked for advice by fellow competitors including Sean O’Hair, his playing partner yesterday.
“I do help them,” Woods said. “We were talking about the course, what flag you fire it at, and where you want to miss the flag. I help them as much as I possibly can. It’s just the role of being here as a champion.
“Being here a number of years, you pass knowledge on. It’s not something that we hold and are going to keep sacred. We pass it on from one generation to the next.”
It was the misfortune of Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, two of the world’s top three, to be eclipsed by the highly-anticipated duel between Woods and Rory McIlroy. Donald, as world No 1, was affronted by the suggestion that there was just one show in town, arguing: “It’s a little naive to say that they are the only two with a chance to win around here.”
But he added that the hysteria could work to his advantage: “Tiger is always the guy who pushes the needle the most, and Rory gets a lot of attention now. For me, that’s probably good. I can just get on with things.”
Westwood, the world No?3 behind McIlroy, denied that Woods and McIlroy were the favourites by a distance. “Rory has never won here, and Tiger has not won here since 2005,” he said. “So it’s naive to think that it’s a two-horse race. I think Phil Mickelson might have something to say about that. Luke might. I might, too.”