The Masters is better when Tiger Woods is in contention on Sunday. That much is beyond debate. There is simply no scene in golf that can compete with a fist-pumping, laser-focused Woods navigating Amen Corner when a green jacket is within reach.
The last time we witnessed the glory of this spectacle was in 2011, when Woods held firm while Rory McIlroy crumbled…until Charl Schwartzel yanked the tournament from everyone’s arms by birdeing each of the final four holes. To find the last time Woods actually slipped on golf’s most iconic fashion piece, you have to go way back to the pre-Twitter days of April 2005. The No. 1 song in America was “Candy Shop” by 50 Cent. President George W. Bush was in the first year of his second term. This writer was a 10-year-old fourth grader.
In other words: it’s been a while. A long while. A long enough while, for most people, to assume we'll never see it again. But this is Tiger Woods at Augusta Nationalwe’re talking about. It’s worth revisiting just how staggering his success at the Masters has been—the four victories are impressive, yes, but how about this: In 18 Masters starts as a professional, he has finished T–8 or better 13 times.
Any time Woods’ body is in one piece and he possesses anything resembling a golf swing, there are going to be plenty of people who truly believe he is going to win his 15th major. This belief is more farcical in some years than others—2015 comes to mind as a particularly ridiculous year to be on the Tiger train, when his two pre-Augusta starts ended in an 82 and a withdrawal, respectively. On the flip side, there was every reason to believe Woods would win the 2013 Masters—he won three of his five starts that year before coming to Augusta as, rightfully, the prohibitive favorite. Instead, he finished tied for fourth.
So what about this year? Is there reason to believe Tiger has a legitimate chance to win—not to finish in the top 20 or the top 10, but to win—the Masters? Let's examine.
Why he can win
• Augusta-specific skills. Perhaps more than any other course professionals play, Augusta requires local knowledge, strategy and a particular skill set. It’s why some guys, like Fred Couples and Bernhard Langher, seem to always play well even as they progress well past AARP age. You need to know what parts of the fairway result in what bounces, where you can and can’t miss around the greens, which putts you can be aggressive with, etc. Tiger, of course, knows all this. He’s won the tournament four times. He has a game plan that’s repeatedly proven to be successful.
Another aspect working in Tiger’s favor is his ability to shape his iron shots from uneven lies. Augusta famously has a bunch of holes that turn from right to left, meaning a right-handed player will often have the ball above his feet for a second shot. That lends itself to a draw, but draws don’t land as softly as fades, and that’s significant when you’re playing into greens as firm and slopey as Augusta’s. Woods, even now, can hit cuts off draw lies (and draws of cut lies, for that matter), and he’s one of maybe eight players in the field who can do that. Don’t underestimate that ability.
• Statistics. Conventional wisdom says that you have to be a great putter to win at Augusta, and there have been a bunch of winners who would seem to corroborate that theory—Tiger, Phil, Spieth, Reed and Crenshaw, to name a few. But in recent years, the winners have typically been guys who were striking the ball at an elite level. How do we explain this? Perhaps Augusta’s greens are so difficult that they essentially neutralize great putters. It’s simply not feasible to putt better than a certain threshold out there, so the best way to make up strokes on the field is to hit it closer, rather than try to roll in long putts.
Here’s how the last six winners ranked in strokes gained tee to green coming into Masters week.
2018: Patrick Reed (24th)
2017: Sergio Garcia (3rd)
2016: Danny Willett (7th)
2015: Jordan Spieth (4th)
2014: Bubba Watson (4th)
2013: Adam Scott (1st)
2012: Bubba Watson (1st)
Tiger currently ranks eighth in strokes gained tee to green. He’s also 18th in strokes gained approaching the green—which he’s led at the end of every year he’s been eligible except 2018, when he finished third—and sixth in strokes gained overall. His finishes thus far haven’t been fantastic (T20, T15, T10, T30, in his stroke-play events) but the non-scoring stats are actually pretty good.
• Confidence. Tiger definitely wants to break Sam Snead’s record of 82 PGA Tour victories, but non-major, non-FedEx playoff and non-team events are, at this point in his career, glorified tune-ups for the four big ones. He thinks of his years through the lens of majors, and he had a legitimate chance to win the last two majors he played in. There was Carnoustie, where he held the solo lead on the back nine before a disastrous double-bogey, and there was Bellerive, where his final-round 64 came up just short of Brooks Koepka. Woods will absolutely draw confidence from those experiences. He knows his game is good enough to be near the lead on Sunday; that’s all you can ask for.
Also, don’t underestimate how big that match-play win over Rory McIlroy was. McIlroy is in the midst of one of the best stretches of his career. He’s clearly the best player in the world right now, and he might be the most confident…and Tiger beat him. It wasn’t pretty, but he stared down the game’s best player in a head-to-head setting and he won. That’s not insignificant.
Why he can’t win
• Inconsistency. At the risk of employing a true cliché, winning a golf tournament requires you to put four good rounds together. Woods has shown spurts of greatness this year—he played four holes in five under to start his third round at Riviera, and then did that again to beat Patrick Cantlay at the match play—but he has been unable to avoid shooting himself in the foot. Whether it’s a cold putting streak, like in Mexico, or two tee shots in the water, like on 17 at the Players, he’s had a hard time preserving momentum.
Woods hasn’t shot two consecutive rounds in the 60s yet this year, and as a result, he hasn’t been any closer than eight shots behind the leader in his four stroke-play events this year. Contrast that with his pre-Augusta finishes in the years he won the green jacket. In 1997: WIN-T18-T2-T20-T9-T31; in 2001: T8-T5-T13-4-T13-WIN-WIN; in 2002: T10-T12-T5-T33-2-WIN-T14-WIN. What’s the common theme there? The Masters has never been Tiger’s first win of the season.
• Putting. Simply put, Woods is having the worst putting season of his career so far. The eye test shows a 43-year-old man who has become increasingly streaky, especially on the shorter ones. The stats illustrated things more clearly:
146th: Putting inside 10 feet
68th: Putting from 10-15 feet
170th: Putting from 15-20 feet
78th: Strokes gained putting
184th: One-putt percentage
209th: Three-putt avoidance
208th: Approach putt performance
Those last two statistics are both troubling and related. Woods has struggled with his speed this year, and speed is the most important aspect to lag putting. Whatever the cause—age-induced erosion of feel? Injury-induced lack of practice?—the result is way more putts outside tap-in range for par (his approach putt average distance from the hole is 2’7”). And since he’s no longer absolutely automatic from five feet and in, he winds up missing some of those comebackers. Every player in the Masters field is going to be faced with long putts over ridges, and judging speed is going to be absolutely crucial. Augusta is just about the last place you want to be struggling with distance control on the greens.
• Can he draw the driver? If the putting stats are worse than the normally are, the driving stats—at least the accuracy ones—are actually better than they have been in years past. There’s a little-known stat called Good Drive Percentage, and I’ll save you the tedium of an explanation, but here’s what you need to know: Francesco Molinari leads, Jim Furyk is second, Tiger Woods is third. He’s also 59th in driving accuracy. On the surface there isn’t anything to write home about, but consider that in Woods’ second prime (2005-09) he averaged 142nd in driving accuracy and never finished better than 86th.
This is good news, right? Yes and no. The reason Woods is more accurate is because he’s developed a go-to shot: a squeeze cut. He’s not swinging nearly as hard with his arms, and it’s producing a nice, flat ball flight that moves from left to right. Unfortunately, Augusta asks for more draws than cuts off tees. While Tiger has pulled off some nice draws this year (often with the 3-wood) he’s much more comfortable hitting fades with the big stick.
How was Tiger able to win four Masters, then? He was comparably much longer off the tee back then, and Augusta wasn’t as long, so his length advantage basically made everything else a moot point. Not anymore—he’s 42nd in driving distance, so he’s no longer able to fly it past where the rest of the field is landing their drives.
So, what can we expect?
Would it be shocking if Tiger won this tournament? No. Would it be surprising? Definitely. So many of the world’s best players are in good form—Rory, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Francesco Molinari, Justin Thomas, to name just a few—and Tiger’s been just decent this year. Something in the 8-16 range feels like a fair estimate for this major. That’s not a commentary on his future major prospects—he has a better chance at Pebble and Portrush—that’s simply an emotion-free prediction for the 2019 Masters.