Before returning to Augusta for the most anticipated encore in
the history of golf, Tiger Woods spent an entire week doing the
one thing he must do if he hopes to fulfill the destiny foretold
after last year's astonishing pro debut: He just said no. He
said no to interviews. No to lawyers seeking his signature on
endorsement deals. No to friends eager to crank up the
PlayStation or hit a few nightclubs. Instead, Woods spent seven
days at home, alone with his game.
Taking welcome refuge in his lakeside villa in Isleworth, the
ultraexclusive community outside Orlando, Woods cut off all
distractions, even his cell phone, so he could fine-tune his
game and his mind. Woods is clearly still wrestling with the
ramifications of being an athlete who has radically altered the
notion of what's possible in his sport. He knows that given his
talent, charisma and ambition, what he did at Augusta last
year--shooting a record 18-under-par 270 to win by 12
strokes--was only a prelude. Like Jack Nicklaus in his prime, he
isn't playing for the money title but for history. Repeating his
Masters mastery is a daunting challenge, but it is the only one
that interests him right now.
It's no accident that Woods has focused on the Masters, for this
is where Nicklaus made his reputation. As a boy Woods kept a
chronology of Nicklaus's major championships tacked up next to
his bed. Technically, he's ahead of the Golden Bear. At 22
Nicklaus had three majors (two U.S. Amateurs and a U.S. Open),
while Woods at 22 has four (three Amateurs and a Masters). But
from age 23 to 27, Nicklaus won six more majors--three Masters,
a U.S. Open, a British Open and a PGA Championship. Woods wants
to stay ahead of that pace.
He is certainly capable of once again taking Augusta's legendary
course by its nape and shaking it like a rag doll. "I wouldn't
be one bit surprised to see him do exactly what he did last
year," says Nicklaus, who has already predicted that Woods will
surpass his record of six green jackets. "If he plays just fair
this year, he should probably still win."
If only it were that easy. Woods knows that many people question
whether he can perform with the same focus and passion he
displayed last year. In the past 12 months he has struggled with
two powerful forces pulling him in opposite directions. One is
fame, which has done miraculous things for his bank account but
nothing for his game. The constant crush of fans, reporters and
promoters has cut into his practice time and his downtime, and
death threats have made him wary outside the gallery ropes. He
has sought counsel from experienced advisers like Michael
Jordan, Charles Barkley and Ken Griffey Jr. "He puts way too
much pressure on himself," says Jordan. "I tell him to make
himself happy. I think he understands that."
He may understand it, but he hasn't yet found a way to do it,
and the mental strain has taken a physical toll. "I am so
tired," said a bleary-eyed Woods in his darkened hotel room
after he struggled to make the cut at the Players Championship
two weeks ago. "And I'm especially tired of talking about the
The other force pulling at him is his talent, which is still
being burnished by his unrelenting desire to be the most
dominant golfer ever. Despite what you might have heard or read
recently, Woods is a more complete player than he was going into
last year's Masters. Without sacrificing any of his prodigious
length, he has made himself a far more accurate driver. The wild
child who regularly flew iron shots over greens is now
consistently pin high with the lower-trajectory approaches that
have been the reward of a more refined swing. His decision
making is more mature. His bad shots are not nearly as bad and
his putting remains streaky, but even his wedge play, still the
weakest part of his game, is more reliable.
The most obvious change is in his physique. The 6'2", 170-pound
Woods has added 20 pounds since a year ago and has built himself
up into a muscular athlete with a broad back and rippling arms.
As part of his training regimen, he bench-presses 225 pounds and
squats more than 300. "Tiger has gotten incredibly strong for a
golfer," says his teacher, Butch Harmon. "It has given him a
very stable base, which makes it easier for him to repeat his
Still, the record suggests that in the tug-of-war between fame
and talent, fame is at least one up. The most obvious indication
of this: Woods has stopped winning (chart, above). His
performance in last year's other three majors was disappointing.
He was only 1-3-1 in the Ryder Cup. And after piling up six
victories on the PGA Tour in his first 10 months as a
professional, Woods hasn't won in the U.S. since last July. He's
played well on several occasions, but he has also shown a
vulnerability that doesn't square with his reputation as golf's
ultimate closer. He had a dramatic final-round 65 that led to a
comeback victory in Thailand in January, but his Sunday charges
this season at La Costa, San Diego and L.A. all fell short, and
he isn't coming into Augusta with much momentum. At Bay Hill
last month he opened with a 64 that gave him an uncharacteristic
early lead, then went into a slow fade that left him tied for
13th. At the Players Championship he finished in a tie for 35th.
Even so, it would be foolhardy to declare that Woods has lost
his winning edge. Golf often doles out victories to its best
players in bunches, and Woods remains outwardly patient,
evincing no self-doubt or panic. "Golf humbles you every day,
every shot, really," he says. "I know how hard the game is."
Despite the lessons in humility he has absorbed in the past nine
months, Woods still believes he will be able to unleash his A
game when he needs it most. Again and again this year, when
asked about his drought, he would say, "As long as I'm ready by
the second week of April."
Woods has been peaking for big tournaments since he was eight,
when he won the first of his six age-group titles at the
Optimist International Junior tournament. "Tiger's favorite
thing has always been getting ready, preparing for a major,"
says his father, Earl. "He is an analytical, systems-oriented
person, and that's how he likes to manage his golf."
Beginning in 1991, when he won his first U.S. Junior Amateur at
age 15, Woods has won the most important major of his season
seven years a row. In 1992 he became the first boy to win the
junior twice, and he made it three straight the following year.
From '94 to '96 he reeled off his record streak of three
consecutive U.S. Amateurs, and in '97, of course, he won the
"Every year he would take the week before his major to mentally
and physically fine-tune," says his father. "We'd drive to the
site and play practice rounds, and after we got home, I'd find
him lying on his bed with his eyes closed. He told me he was
playing the shots he was going to need in his head."
"Even as a little boy, Tiger was very organized about his
preparation," says Rudy Duran, who became Woods's first teacher
when he was four. "He didn't want to rush into an event, he
wanted to ease into it calmly. When it was really time to do it,
he was confident and patient because he knew he was the most
prepared. For the tournaments that he really wanted to win, he
always had this little timer in his head."
For most golfers, to even speak of peaking is heretical, a sign
of either arrogance or indolence. "When you do something extra
for a major," says Tom Kite, "you're admitting that you aren't
doing your best the rest of the time." Perhaps, but when Ben
Hogan used to prepare for the Masters by isolating himself at
Seminole, or Nicklaus would play his own version of a 72-hole
tournament at Augusta the week before a Masters, they were
acting on their fundamental belief that they were special
players capable of a special effort in a special event.
"I liked to get to Augusta early to clean out my mind, get away
from nine million questions and just play golf and really get
ready," says Nicklaus. "I was very motivated, and my love for
the game just drove me morning, noon and night."
Former Tour commissioner Deane Beman, then a top amateur, was
Nicklaus's partner during some of those pre-Masters excursions.
"I don't think Jack learned all that much about the course
during those practice rounds," says Beman. "But what he did do
was convince himself that he was gaining an advantage on the
field. In golf, if you believe you have an edge, even if it's
razor-thin, that's a very powerful force."
Woods believes he has that edge. He is confident that the game
he used to overwhelm Augusta National last year--his 323-yard
driving average; his well-conceived, controlled approaches; and
his unerring touch on the greens--was the direct result of the
seven-day, dawn-to-dusk golf immersion he went through at
Isleworth last April. It began with three long days on the
practice tee spent fine-tuning his swing with Harmon. That was
followed by four days of Woods working alone. It was toward the
end of the week that he played a round with his best friend on
the Tour, Mark O'Meara, and shot a 59. "And it was an easy
59--if there is such a thing," marveled O'Meara. The following
afternoon Woods scored a hole in one. It's not surprising that
he flew into Augusta the next day expecting to win.
Last week Woods replicated his pre-Masters regimen. On Monday he
and Harmon worked on shortening his backswing without shortening
the width of his arc. They had made the same adjustment before
last year's Masters, but Woods had regressed into a longer
backswing over the course of the season. Harmon decided it was
time for a refresher course in March after the Nissan Open in
Los Angeles, where Woods badly pushed his tee shots to the right
on both the 72nd hole and in his sudden-death loss to Billy
Mayfair. Harmon says that this recurring problem is a by-product
of Woods's extraordinary flexibility, which allows him to
over-turn on his backswing. From that position he has a tendency
to let his hips get ahead of his shoulders. When that happens,
his club drops too far inside the target line, and Woods
reflexively uses his wrists and hands in a split-second attempt
to square the club face. Sometimes he succeeds and hits the ball
straight, but the more common result is either a push or a hook.
Woods calls this flaw "getting stuck" and says it's the reason
he sometimes finishes with just his left hand holding the club.
A shorter backswing makes it easier for him to keep his upper
and lower halves in sync. Harmon says that in his Monday-morning
session last week, Woods hit about 700 balls--almost all with an
eight-iron--working on this one facet of his swing.
After lunch, Woods worked on his putting. Although there are no
statistics to support such a claim, Tiger watchers say that the
six- to 10-footers he was making with regularity when he first
turned pro have been dropping less frequently. Both Harmon and
Earl Woods apparently agree, and both weighed in with
suggestions. Harmon, who monitors Tiger's alignment, hand
position and technique, recently had him change from having his
hands slightly ahead of the ball at address to directly over the
ball, because Woods had a tendency to close the club face going
back and pull a lot of putts to the left. "Getting his hands
even gives him a nice free release into the ball," says Harmon.
Earl doesn't deal with terms like "free release" or "close the
club face." He believes Tiger has a gift for hitting the ball to
the target, and he encourages him to trust that gift. One of
Earl's favorite stories goes back to when Tiger was first
learning to play. Earl asked his son what he was thinking about
during his swing, and Tiger said, "Where I want the ball to go."
Earl believes that Zen-like clarity is the key to Tiger's game.
"He's listening to too many people who don't really know his
style, and he's gotten too worried about mechanics," says Earl.
"I want him to get back to visualizing the putt and letting it
go. When he trusts his instincts, Tiger is a great putter."
His son agrees. "After Augusta, I got really streaky with the
putter, mainly because I didn't have as much time to practice,"
says Tiger. "I fell into a quick-fix syndrome instead of going
back and working on the simple fundamentals I had always worked
on. I stopped trusting myself, and I have to go back to that."
Both Earl and Harmon believe Tiger is at his best on courses
with fast, sloping greens, of which Augusta is the epitome.
"Augusta makes you use your imagination and creativity on the
greens," says Harmon. "That's where Tiger excels."
Woods and his fans can also take encouragement from the fact
that when he is under the most pressure, he goes back to the
tried and true. He made a 15-footer in Thailand to beat Ernie
Els in sudden death, and at Los Angeles, he willed in a curling
left-to-right 18-footer for a birdie on the 72nd hole that would
have brought him victory had Mayfair not matched it.
Here's another reason to discount his recent putting woes: He
was coming off two tournaments in which his putting was mediocre
last year before Augusta, and he went on to have one of the best
putting weeks of his life.
On Tuesday of last week, Woods started the morning on the
driving range, working through his bag, beginning with his wedge
and progressing through his eight-iron, six-iron, four-iron,
three-wood and driver. By the time he was finished, he had again
hit more than 700 balls. After lunch, he played six holes with
Harmon, O'Meara and Australian pro Stuart Appleby. He ended the
day at Isleworth's short-game area, where he worked on his
pitches and bunker shots.
Woods did stray from Isleworth for business on Tuesday night,
attending the grand opening of the All-Star Cafe in Tampa. After
schmoozing with Andre Agassi and Penny Hardaway, he slipped off
to the adjacent Atlanta Braves spring training field, where he
caught passes thrown by Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Jeff
Blake. The next morning he awoke with a case of laryngitis, all
the better to continue his mission with quiet resolve.
On Wednesday morning he again hit his way through his bag--and
about 700 balls--and then adjourned to the putting green for
more practice there. After lunch, Harmon flew back to his home
in Las Vegas and Woods went out to play by himself. Thursday,
Friday, Saturday and Sunday were less intense, as Woods
practiced and played informal rounds with O'Meara.
All this work left Woods feeling that he's primed for another
strong run at the Masters. Even his fabled luck seems to have
returned. In the Orlando airport Harmon received a call from
Woods, who croaked that he'd just aced the 200-yard 2nd hole
with a six-iron. "It's a great omen for Augusta," says Harmon.
"When I left him, he was swinging the best he's ever swung. He's
ready for Augusta. I think he can score even lower this year."
Woods has not lost the almost palpable confidence he has exuded
since joining the Tour. He believes that whatever needs doing,
he will get done. This aura was on display during SI's cover
shoot when Woods marched into the ballroom of the Isleworth
clubhouse, eased past a group of wary technicians and his very
nervous agent and calmly cuddled with a somewhat agitated,
650-pound white Bengal tiger named Samson, who stopped growling
as soon as he saw Woods.
"That young man projects supreme confidence like no one I've
ever seen," said the tiger's handler, David McMillan, who has
worked with wild animals for 37 years. "You can't fake that with
a big cat. Samson sensed no weakness or fear in Tiger, just
power and inner peace."
Those two qualities may be Woods's greatest weapons. They are
the traits his mother, Kultida, tries to nurture when she takes
him on their annual pilgrimage to a Buddhist temple near Los
Angeles. And they are undoubtedly what Woods will be leaning on
as he approaches the 1st tee at Augusta on Thursday.
"I think there is actually less pressure this year," says Woods.
"There is more external pressure, but internal pressure? I think
there will be less. I know what it's going to take. I now know
how to win at Augusta."
IS TIGER BEAT?
After knocking the golf world on its Dockers during the first 10
months of his pro career, Woods hasn't won in the U.S. since the
Western Open last July. Here are his numbers going into the
PRO CAREER THROUGH JULY 6, 1997 SINCE JULY 6, 1997
Wins 6 0
Top 3 finishes 9 4
Top 5 finishes 10 4
Top 10 finishes 11 6
Scoring avg. 69.0 70.2
First-round avg. 69.3 69.6
Final-round avg. 68.7 70.9
Winnings per start $124,874 $63,985
score even lower this year."