Wednesday 22 May 2019

Warmer, kinder Woods looks genuine contender once again

Tiger’s roar: Tiger Woods acknowledges the cheers from his supporters after sinking a birdie putt during the first round of the Masters at Augusta. Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Tiger’s roar: Tiger Woods acknowledges the cheers from his supporters after sinking a birdie putt during the first round of the Masters at Augusta. Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Oliver Brown

For Tiger Woods, this was Throwback Thursday. Not only was he toting the mock turtleneck last glimpsed during his mid-Noughties pomp, he also marked his opening drive, fired like a tracer bullet, with a contented little club twirl.

Maybe Jack Nicklaus, who played with Woods at the Bear's Club in Florida recently and disclosed that he had never seen a golfer shoot an easier round of 64, had been providing a prophecy.

It was observed this week that the late-career tale of Woods at the Masters could largely be conveyed by the champions' dinners.

In 2017, while enjoying prime rib and Yorkshire pudding courtesy of Danny Willett, he confided to Nick Faldo that his golfing life was, in all probability, at an end, ravaged by knee surgeries and a bout of the chipping yips.

Last year, he was more reflective than despairing, insisting that he was happy just to be back competing.

This time, fortified by his new-found consistency, he had no problem telling the assembled throng that he could win again.

The manner of his first-round 70, in which he scrambled improbable pars just as surely as he rediscovered his putting touch for four priceless birdies, gave weight to his confidence.

Grimacing At 43, Woods looks, dare one say it, sprightlier than he has in years, not grimacing through back pain but looking like a man truly grateful to be here.

Even when he duffed a chip from behind the 15th green - the type of lapse that once drew a scowl that could have curdled milk - he smiled in resignation.

This change in the weather around Woods is not just a matter of perception.

For his 22nd Masters, he is making PR efforts that would once have been unthinkable.

On the eve of the tournament, he appeared at the US golf writers' annual dinner by the Savannah River, making a gracious acceptance speech for the Ben Hogan Award, given to a player "who has overcome a physical handicap or serious injury to remain active in golf".

He made reference, in particular, to that gloomy dinner in the Augusta clubhouse two years ago, when he had needed a nerve block just to turn up.

A few of the trademark Woods defences are down. He has made time to talk to Valentino Dixon, a golf artist who spent 27 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

While locked up at the infamous Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York, Dixon conjured vivid images of Augusta National, despite never having set foot in the place.

For light relief, Woods has also shot a Bridgestone advert alongside Conor Moore, the Irish impersonator who has made a name for mimicking his "man, really tough out there" tics.

A Woods who can laugh at himself, who does not 'phone in' half his interviews? Who is this impostor, and what have you done with the real Tiger?

While we have grown accustomed to seeing Woods' inscrutable game face, and to learning all about his obsession with Navy Seals, he has projected a warmer, kinder face to the world this week.

The benefits seem to be seeping through to his golf. This card of 70, spoilt only by dropped shots at the 17th and the redesigned fifth, matched his first day's work back in 1997, when he achieved his era-defining 12-stroke win.

No one should expect a repeat of those pyrotechnics. The days when Woods could reel off seven straight birdies at Augusta - as he did in 2005 to lay the platform for a fourth green jacket - are far behind him. In any case, the forecast for wet and stormy conditions does not portend a spree of low scoring.

But there was enough evidence yesterday to suggest that his course management was as sharp as ever, that he was learning to rein in his worst misses off the tee.

Perhaps we should start listening more to the man himself, who concedes that the machine he once was has gone for good. He has a fused spine, and he is physically incapable of devoting same prodigious hours on practising.

It shows, for example, on the greens, where he has lost his ability to sink pressure putts from everywhere.

Still, the 'Tiger roar' is not quite a relic of the past. His back-to-back birdies at the 13th and 14th, enabling him briefly to capture a share of the lead, made sure of that. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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