Tiger, The Masters and Tiger-Proofing

For nearly 20 years, I trekked along the grassy, often hilly terrain inside the ropes of both amateur and professional tournaments, a lob wedge away from Tiger Woods. As the collaborator on all-things-Tiger (especially instruction) at Golf World and Golf Digest, I walked more miles with the anointed one than everyone except surly ex-caddie Steve Williams. Mine was truly a walk in the shadows of greatness.

As an eyewitness to feats too surreal for mere mortal consumption, I have determined that the golf gods can be a cruel lot with little or no regard for Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. And they have an unwavering disdain for those who dare disrespect their sentries. Tiger discovered that truism on his first foray into the competition that the good folks among the grits-and-red-eye-gravy set dubbed the Masters, held annually on the hallowed grounds of Augusta National Golf Club.

The then-freshly minted U.S. Amateur champion, a 19-year-old phenom with tons more panache than polished humility, sought to obliterate the pristine environs of the year’s first major championship. His opening drive on Thursday split the fairway some 300-plus yards from the tee. He launched a soaring short iron to 18 feet or so. Then, the unthinkable happened.

Woods, famously adept at holing chips and putts from various area codes, rolled his Titleist Professional toward the cup at what appeared at first to be a gentle pace. But that pace quickened as the ball got closer to the hole, suddenly sliding past it. Then gravity kicked in and pulled it off the putting surface down an embankment. Tiger had been fist-pumped in his six-pack.

The dumbfounded expression on Tiger’s face was priceless. He never recovered from that inauspicious start in 1995, missing the 36-hole cut. Amazingly, he has not missed one since, although he has flirted with the cut line on at least one other occasion.

The backhand across his chops proved a reality check for Woods. He would have to adopt a less aggressive putting style in order to have any success on the notoriously fast and undulating greens of Augusta National. That meant, instead of ramming the ball at the imagined “picture” (Earl Woods taught toddler Tiger to “putt to the picture”), he would have to learn how to roll the ball so deftly that it would “die” into the picture, a technique perfected by Jack Nicklaus in being fitted for an unprecedented six green jackets.

If nothing else, Tiger has always been a quick study in matters of sport. Two years later, a more seasoned Woods tamed those same treacherous greens and torched the field for a 12-shot victory, becoming the youngest Masters champ in the process. Not one three-putt green over 72 holes. Unheard of in the crucible of major championship play, especially, in the former nursery-turned-torture-chamber late on a Sunday afternoon when formidable sportsmen become spineless jellyfish under the pressure.

A return to similar putting prowess is the primary reason for Tiger’s three wins already in the young season and the prohibitive favorite status in his 19th Masters, this week. Simply put: When the T-Man putts lights out, he’s pretty much unbeatable. Thanks to a putting tip he received a few weeks ago from good friend and Ryder Cup mate, Steve Stricker, he’s painting a portrait of success on the greens again.

A quick look at Tiger’s putting stats over the past 18 Masters reveals the importance of having a dependable, if not dominating, flat stick. Only in 2001 did Woods win despite less-than-stellar putting. That year, he had four three-putts in tying for 37th in total putting, an anemic performance which, nonetheless, completed the fabled “Tiger Slam.” In repeating as champ the next year, Tiger tied for 21st in total putting with one three-putt. While recording his last Masters win in 2005, Tiger had three three-putts, but still ranked T-10 in overall putting.

Since then, he has finished no better than T-3 (2010) with an average ranking in total putting of 25th and three three-putts per tournament. Mediocrity is hardly synonymous with winning the Masters.

Sub-par putting hasn’t been the only impediment to Tiger’s success at Augusta National. Of course, there is the self-inflicted wound of scandal. Mental and emotional setbacks are sometimes more challenging than those of a physical nature, and he’s had his share of those, as well.

Perhaps the main checkpoint to the Masters, besides the one at the entrance of Magnolia Lane, was concocted and constructed in a conference call or smoke-filled room at Augusta National in the aftermath of that historic win in ’97. Intent on preserving the integrity of their beloved golf course, a small group of conspirators must have gathered, determined to “Tiger-proof’’ it. The prospect of a little boy of color winning every year was unfathomable. Surely, that’s not what Master-minds Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts envisioned when they began this rite of spring in 1934.

In addition to his flawless putting, Tiger’s monstrous but seldom pinpoint driving completely destroyed Augusta National, turning it into a virtual pitch-and-putt. The conspirators brought in renowned architect Tom Fazio to lengthen the layout and penalize players like Tiger with a propensity for long-but-crooked tee shots. All of a sudden, the rough, for years barely distinguishable from the closely cropped fairway, had grown a baby Afro. And rows of transplanted pine saplings had been strategically placed along the fairways to dissuade bailouts and shortcuts.

The obvious changes definitely affected Tiger and other big bashers, the right-handed players in particular. Prior to the extra yardage, a course built to favor the high-ball hitter with a right-to-left ball flight (i.e. four-time winner Arnold Palmer) had been tamed by most notably Ben Hogan and Nicklaus, the game’s premier faders during their eras. Drawers like Tiger either opted for a fairway wood off the tee to position the ball for a second shot into the still reachable par-5s, or avoided the potential big numbers lurking on the left of the long holes (especially the par-5 second, eighth and 13th) like snipers perched in the tall pines, by bombing the driver. And if it traveled too far right, no problem. A mid-to-short iron from the pine straw or scant rough in the hands of a pro is like LeBron posterizing a height-challenged defender; sans stare down, of course.

Now, major problems. The saplings not only block out the sun, they force lay-ups and punch-outs, and, more importantly, give fewer opportunities for eagle – the one shot that, more than any other, makes the pines tremble from the gleeful roars of the crowd and the azaleas blush from envy.

The less conspicuous result of the changes is not so much identified by who is favored to capture the green jacket this year, Tiger or Rory McIlroy, as it is by who should be favored based on recent history. Left-handers Mike Weir (’03), Phil Mickelson (’04, ’08, ’10) and Bubba Watson (’12) have won half of the past 10 Masters. In Weir’s case, it was lights-out putting in the final round that earned him the title.

Both Mickelson and Watson overpowered the par-5s with their ability to hit power-fades with driver, leaving them much shorter shots into the green than the average Tiger. Sure, creativity from trouble and imagination around the greens also boosted their chances of succeeding. However, if you spot Usain Bolt five meters in the 100-meters, you’ll get dusted every time.

I’m not saying that Tiger-proofing Augusta National or substandard putting or self-inflicted wounds have kept Woods out of the winners’ circle the past seven years. The cumulative effect, though, gives one pause.

Unless you’re Quentin Tarantino, you can’t rewrite history. But you can learn from it. To that end, Tiger has put in work the past two weeks on the Masters-simulated green in the backyard of his estate in Jupiter, Fl. If his newfound confidence in the flat stick travels well, then it’s back to the drawing board for the conspirators.

If not, he can always kibitz with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who as one of the first female members of Augusta National owns a green jacket, too. They can compare notes on the shifting landscape trundling the grand, old club on Washington Road into the 21st century.

Welcome change, like a revived putting stroke.

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