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Woods recaptures old touch but demons linger

An antidote to the theory that Tiger Woods' strong favouritism for the 77th Masters is merited could have either a statistical or psychological body of evidence. The latest round of "Can he do it?" surrounding him will begin again at Augusta on Thursday, with the 37-year-old seeking to end a Major drought that has lasted just short of five years.

Not since 2005 has Woods donned a Green Jacket.

In Woods' defence – a phrase not uttered much since his infidelities came to light in 2009 – the intervening spell has been riddled both with physical trouble and personal chaos. From being the most feared competitor in golf, Woods regressed to such an extent that many onlookers believed his career was over in all-but name. The scale of his achievement in returning to his current position, as again the top-ranked golfer in the world, and in formidable physical shape, cannot be ignored. Yet with a Major-winning gap to the level Woods has encountered, there inevitably emerges a sense of urgency and desire that can be counter-productive should they slip towards desperation. While Woods could never forget how to win the Masters, the mental approach of that happening almost as second nature – he triumphed in 1997, 2001 and 2002 before the 2005 success – cannot possibly still be in place now.

"It's been one of those things where I've been close there so many times on that back nine on Sunday, and I just haven't won," Woods says. "I have been in the mix. I have been on the periphery and played myself into the mix. I've been right there with just a few holes to go and it just hasn't happened. Hopefully, this year it will be a different story."

The notion that 2013 will indeed provide Woods with another famous Masters tale has of course been highlighted by the early months. The American has won three times on the PGA Tour already, collecting just under $3.8m on top of dislodging Rory McIlroy from that top ranking position.

A closer inspection of how Woods has risen again to such prominence, however, reveals precisely how he has transformed his prospects. Woods tops the PGA Tour's ranking in strokes gained from putting, per round. That figure sits at 1.47, an endorsement of how ruthlessly brilliant he has been on the greens this year. He has holed out 16 times from 37 attempts between 10ft and 15ft.

The more surprising number for those who have paid only loose attention to Woods is that his driving accuracy sits at a mere 55%, 145th on the PGA Tour. His greens in regulation percentage, at 67, is only slightly better.

Unlike earlier years, it is no longer the case that Woods can drive his way out of trouble through extraordinary distance. Players such as Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson and Keegan Bradley, while well short of Woods's experience, will readily out-drive the world No 1 on a course now playing more than 7,400 yards when at its full length.

So the picture is clear: if Woods can continue to putt like he did when at his dominant best, his Augusta status is well merited. If not, inconsistent tee-shots could fatally undermine his hopes of a fifth Masters title.

Or could it? In 2005, Woods sat 191st in the driving accuracy table before winning the Masters. Two years later, when he finished in a tie for second, he was 152nd. What he had as a crucial Augusta tool during those visits was a reliable draw with his driver. That, perhaps most pertinently of all, has not been so regularly displayed during recent successes.

Of those looking to steal discussion away from Woods, Phil Mickelson may well be the most likely. The Californian has been in the strange position of taking a week off before a Major, owing to his unwillingness to play in the Texas Open. At Mickelson's last outing, the Houston Open, he displayed both daily improvement and less of the erratic touch which undermined his Masters bid a year ago.

Mickelson has added two Green Jackets to his wardrobe since Woods last claimed one of his own. Only next weekend will prove the relevance of that point which, at the very least, it would seem folly to ignore.


Irish Independent