AUGUSTA, GA. — Unlike last year when so many of golf’s worthwhile contenders were revved up and ready to grab a Masters title, this week’s prohibitive favorite is virtually a unanimous pick.
Just look at the collapsing landscape around Woods: Three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson has been all-or-nothing in the early season and currently is enamored with experimenting with 3-woods that look like drivers. Rory McIlory, the man who started the season ranked No. 1, has played so poorly that he decided to add last week’s Valero Texas Open to his schedule at the last minute — and finally contended for the first time in 2013. And while Lee Westwood has made gains in his bugaboo, the short game, his long game has all but deserted him.
Then there’s Woods. More than two years into his partnership with instructor Sean Foley, he is no longer flailing. He has jumped forward when others have fallen back. He has won three PGA Tour events in five appearances this year, including his past two starts on the Florida swing. And he has regained the top spot in the official world ranking.
And he is ready to end his seven-year drought at the Masters, a skid that went on longer than anyone could have imagined — including Woods himself.
“I’ve put myself in the mix every year but last year, and that’s the misleading part,” Woods said. “It’s not like I’ve been out there with no chance of winning this championship. I’ve been there, and unfortunately just haven’t got it done.”
Tee to green, Woods certainly has tightened up his loose ends. He has never driven the ball with so much accuracy — and he has regained much of his lost length. And his wedge play, which failed him as late as last season, is back to being sharp.
It would be a shock if Woods was not among the leaders in greens hit in regulation this week, which should go a long way toward determining whether he is a championship contender.
But once he is on these magnificently treacherous greens, what will happen?
Will he be able to overcome the biggest letdown in his game in recent Masters?
“I was there ball-striking-wise a few years through that (losing) stretch where I think I hit it pretty well. I hit a lot of greens, but just didn’t make enough putts,” Woods said.
“As we all know, you have to putt well here. You have to make a lot of putts. You have to make the majority of putts inside 10 feet, and you’ve got to be a great lag putter for the week.”
That is not saying he has to be a lights-out putter all week. The four times Woods won the Masters — 1997, 2001-02 and 2005 — he led the field three times in greens hit in regulation, and was second the other time.
In those same four years, the best he finished in total putting for the tournament was eighth. He was 37th in that category in 2001, and 21st in 2002.
What really crept into his poor Masters efforts since 2005 has been missed short putts. Untimely three-putts, especially in the final round, have doomed his championship hopes.
Former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk says with the slower greens away from Augusta, it’s easier to make putts when you’re aggressive.
“When you get it going bad here, and putts aren’t going in and you feel defensive a lot of times, it makes it difficult to make some putts and get the momentum changed,” Furyk said.
From 2006-09, even though Woods was up and down in his mid-distance putting (5 to 15 feet), he still ranked as one of the best on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting.
Then in 2010, he slipped to 109th in that statistic, and has been slowly climbing back toward the top since.
Woods was even misfiring at the beginning of this season. After a brief set-up and alignment tip he received from PGA Tour veteran Steve Stricker just over a month ago, Woods has been spot-on. He pretty much leads all significant putting categories this season.
“When Tiger is playing his peak golf, which is what he seems to be doing right now, and putting the way he did at Bay Hill — he’s going to be a very, very tough guy to beat,” said reigning FedEx Cup playoff champion Brandt Snedeker.
“When he putts that good, it’s hard to beat him, because he doesn’t beat himself.”
This really is Woods’ time to get another Masters victory as he chases Jack Nicklaus’ major-championship record. His game exudes purpose and confidence. If Woods makes a few more putts at crucial times this week, expect him to be right at the top of the leaderboard come Sunday.
“Even at times where he has not played his best, you know what he’s capable of, so you’re always looking at his score. You’re always worried about him making that big run the way he’s always done throughout his career,” Mickelson said.
“And now he’s … winning tournaments in dominating fashion, so this does have the feel of what we expect to see from Tiger.”Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 todd.milles@ thenewstribune.com blogs.thenewstribune.com/golf @ManyHatsMilles