Monday 11 December 2017

Vine: Tiger Woods calls himself a 'dumbass' but yips vanish on erratic return to the Masters

Tiger Woods watches his tee shot on the 14th hole during the first round of the Masters
Tiger Woods watches his tee shot on the 14th hole during the first round of the Masters

Oliver Brown

The reception was as gracious as it was generous. With the mercury nudging 90 on a sultry Georgia afternoon, Tiger Woods stepped back into the white heat of Masters confrontation in the manner of a returning statesman.

There was to be no repeat of the raucousness that heralded his post-scandal comeback in 2010, when a light aircraft flew overhead trailing the banner: “Sex addict? Yeah, me too.” Woods has spent this week delicately crafting his public image as a smiling raconteur and doting father, and the sense among the hordes to flocked to witness an icon’s rebirth was that they liked what they saw.

Or at least they did until Woods struck his first shot in anger. His opening drive drifted to the right, coming to rest near the giant fairway bunker, as he struggled to brush off the rust that had accumulated during a two-month absence.

Few, though, had known what to expect. For this was a restoration with an unfamiliar context. In the past five years Woods has been forced to rebound from turmoil in his private life, from a potentially career-ending knee injury, and from a pinched nerve in his back. This time, the invalid was his once peerlessly robust game.

Nobody could predict with any certainty how the patient would look, although on this evidence of this scratchy 73 it was still in the early stages of convalescence.

 “Oh Tiger, you dumbass!” Woods cried out on the 15th, after another wretched drive.

At one over par, with little to show for 14 holes of grind, the frustration of the day was starting to simmer. A round that had begun with headline billing was deteriorating into an all-too-familiar make-do-and-mend affair, as Woods ceded the mantle of Augusta supremacy to Jordan Spieth, whom he trailed by eight with two to play. The Tiger-like roars being detonated across these fabled acres were all for the 21-year-old from Dallas.

First, some perspective: Woods can be a snail-like starter at the best of times, having broken 70 in just one of his 19 previous Masters. He is also on the path back from an unprecedented nadir in his form. At the 2009 Masters, when Woods staged a memorable Sunday duel with Phil Mickelson, he disclosed that he had been fighting his swing and “just kind of Band-Aided it around”. This was another case study in the Band-Aid category. Woods appeared far from comfortable with his action at times, having had it remodelled by so-called ‘biomechanics expert’ Chris Como. His drive at the par-four seventh flew all of 212 yards.

The solitary consolation was that the chipping yips, which afflicted him so dreadfully in a career-worst round of 82 in Phoenix in January, had been consigned to history. A litmus test of his improvements in his department came at the 11th, where he flopped a pitch on to a glassy green with the ease of his friend and basketball idol Michael Jordan playing a fadeaway jump shot. “That’s a strength of my game,” he said. “That’s why I worked my butt off – to make it a strength once again.”

This, though, was about as far as any cold comforts extended. It augured ill when Woods left his approach to the first 45 feet short, then missing a curly five-footer for par. Instantly the zen-like calm evaporated, as he motioned to thwack the disobliging ball into the next county. The early lapse threatened to leak like acid into his fragile confidence.

The response – a hooked drive at the second that caught the upper branches of a pine tree – was ominously wayward. Somehow, Woods collected himself, drawing a three-wood around the corner of this dogleg par-five before flopping a pitch within five feet of the flag and sinking his birdie putt. One hole had unfolded with the same twists as much of his golf since he last won a major, almost seven years ago. It was a curious patchwork of glory and gory.

When his tee-shot at the fourth plunged into the yawning bunker guarding the green, his attempt at an escape sailed straight over the back. These are acute concerns for a player still harbouring designs upon five more major titles to surpass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18. At present he is far too erratic and mercurial to live with gunslingers like Spieth, who combine Woods’ celebrated audacity with a much greater degree of accuracy. Woods did conjure a repeat of past magic at the seventh, threading his second shot through a sliver of a gap between the trees, showing an athleticism that belied a 39-year-old with a suspect back.

But the worry was why Woods was so far off line in the first place. Under the gaze of Como, he has been toiling to tidy up his play off the tee, and yet during a ragged front nine he made just two fairways. He could not avert a 14th consecutive round without breaking par in the majors, one that stretches back to the first round at Hoylake last summer.

Woods is perhaps wise not to panic just yet. He shook off one particular slump with emphatic brilliance in 2013, winning five tournaments. At the champion’s dinner last Tuesday evening in honour of Bubba Watson, Nicklaus had what he described as his “longest ever conversation” with Woods. “He was very confident, very calm,” the six-time Masters champion said. “He is a very complex and unusual young man.”

Very perceptive, is the Golden Bear. One senses that behind Woods’ façade of charm and affability this week lies a boiling mass of insecurities. He has the proudest record at Augusta to protect, with four titles and a sequence of seven top-10 finishes even in his past nine chaotic years. But to judge by this display, he is far short of the form required to slip on the green jacket for a fifth time.

 So far, the forces are not aligning as he would wish. Woods, once the most lethal putter of them all inside 15-foot range, left a birdie effort at the seventh hopelessly short. At the eighth, he followed a textbook drive with a rush of blood for his second shot, as the ball flew across the green and came to rest at the base of a grandstand. The chip was a little better, grazing the edge of the putt to set up a routine birdie that returned him to level par. The less we dwell on the ninth – where he turned his drive on to the first fairway, shanked his second, and hit the third from the pine straw en route to another dropped shot – the better. Likewise his pitiful excuse for a tee-shot at the 12th, which rolled apologetically back into the water.

“A good day,” said Woods, with Spieth streaking over a distant horizon. “It felt good out there.” He was fooling no one. True, the damage of these 18 holes was far from grievous for his Masters chances. But anybody hoping for the re-emergence of the wizard of old would have been left with plenty of gnawing doubts.

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