Assessing Tiger's Return to the Masters
SO WHAT are we to make of that? We all hoped that Tiger Woods would return to Augusta and that he would bestride those magnificent fairways in the manner he has done so many times in the past. It wasn’t to be. He had built up our hopes with some great form in the run-up to The Masters but when he got there he was unable to reproduce it.
The truth is that we all fell for the hype, we all wanted to believe that he could turn back the clock, get into the mix on the final day and win the Green Jacket. And we all forgot just how difficult this golf course can be, how unforgiving it is. Woods has played little or no competitive golf during the past three years and is a man who is still finding his way back. While he has been away, everybody else has got better – much better. And he no longer scares anybody.
We should actually celebrate the fact that he made the cut, that he played all 72 holes at Augusta and that he remains in good health, still swinging the golf club as well as he has ever done.
During an emotional week for the 14-time major champion we have seen a new-found humility. He spoke of his astonishment at the reaction of the fans to his return to this place. Woods seemed genuinely surprised that the patrons gave him standing ovation after standing ovation. It speaks to the esteem in which he is held, and it confirms just how badly the golfing public want to see him back to his best, winning golf tournaments again. And he will. The Masters probably came too soon for him, and he probably wanted it too badly.
He finished with a 69, his best score of the week, for a one over par total of 289. It wasn’t what he had in mind at the start of the week but he said afterwards that he had enjoyed the week. “The reality is that my iron play simply wasn’t good enough, but I hit a lot of good drives and I putted well,” he said. “I will never forget the welcome I have received from the patrons though – it was very, very special."
There is not the slightest doubt that this 42-year-old golfing genius still possesses the game to win golf tournaments and because of his terrible struggles off the course, he will cherish them more dearly when they do come along again.
Over the course of four days at Augusta he struck a lot of quality golf shots. There will be those who will point to his wayward driving as a sign that he is still a long way from his best but that is to forget the fact that he has always been errant from the tee. It has been his ability to conjure magical recovery shots that has made him stand out from the rest – and he retains that ability in spades.
His game was off this past week, but it wasn’t that far off. As he said, if you put the ball in the wrong place on the greens at Augusta National, even by a matter of inches, then you will be punished. Woods struck some huge, straight drives. The thing that really let him down was that his iron-play was off.
Bernhard Langer says that it doesn’t really matter how far you hit the ball at The Masters, that the key to scoring well is where you put your approaches and it is why the veteran German still plays here – he has never been a big hitter, but he has achieved his success with irons in his hands. And he believes that a senior golfer could easily win this golf tournament. We have seen him come close in recent years, just as we have seen Fred Couples continue to be competitive well into his fifties.
For Woods, age is not yet a factor. He still hits the ball plenty far enough and, on his day, his iron play is as good as anybody’s. He also remains one of the best putters in the game. As he said, he hit a lot of terrific putts over the course of four days but the problem was that he simply didn’t give himself enough birdie opportunities. Failing to take advantage of the four par fives on the opening day set the tone for his week. Over the years, he has owned these holes, but this year they got their own back on the great man.
Woods will be disappointed by his performance. This is a man who plays golf to win. But he will also take away a great many positives. He knows that he can still compete at this level. He knows, too, that with a few more events under his belt he will be ready to contend at the business end. Most of all, he will walk away from his favourite venue with the endorsement of the public ringing in his ears. The galleries love an underdog, and that is what he currently is. They also love a comeback. And they love the fact that Woods is fighting fit again, that he appears to be back for good – and that he is enjoying his golf now more than at any stage in his career. When Woods smiles, the years fall away and he looks like a young man again. And he has smiled a great deal this year.
Who would ever have thought we would see the day that Woods would walk towards a tee in competitive play while high-fiving with the fans? In his prime, he played with a game face on, focused only on himself and on what he was doing. Like Nick Faldo before him, Woods froze everybody and everything else out. But here he is having reinvented himself as a man of the people, For the first time in his career, everybody is rooting for him. What a transformation.
It is good to have you back Tiger. We await that first win with eager anticipation.
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