Tiger Woods is over a week away from competing in his 23rd Masters, his first time back at Augusta National since storming to a stunning victory nearly 19 months ago.
It feels like a lifetime since the American defied the odds to clinch a 15th major title, capping an incredible comeback from multiple injuries and scandals that dogged his career in recent years.
Eight knee and back surgeries left him wondering at times whether he would be able to rediscover that old magic. But around the pristine greens of Augusta, he is like a different animal, having captured the famed green jacket on five occasions.
Turning 45 next month, he may lack that same consistent winning ability, yet still remains one of the most intimidating and ruthless players in the game.
But when Woods steps out onto the first tee next Thursday, it will be different without any of the patrons tracking his every move. It will be different too as nobody knows what firepower he will bring.
Expectations are lower than 2019, with just one top-10 finish from eight tournaments this year, that coming in the form of a T9 at the Farmers Insurance Open back in January.
Yet aside from that promising result at Torrey Pines, his form reads 68, T40, T37, T58, T51, MC and T72 over the last nine months. Inconsistencies that have seen the 44-year-old slip from sixth in the world rankings to 32nd at present.
Even a return to Sherwood Country Club last weekend – a course he has won at five times – he failed to produce any of that old wizardry, finishing 72nd out of 77 players. A staggering 22 shots behind winner Patrick Cantlay.
His inconsistencies over the course of the year can be attributed to his inability to find greens in regulation. On the PGA Tour, he ranks 223rd on greens in regulation (61.11 per cent) which doesn’t augur well for a successful title defence.
The 82-time PGA Tour winner is still a talisman on his day but, unfortunately, we are seeing it less as knee and back injuries have plagued him in recent years.
Traditionally, Woods has never played the week before the Masters and will continue to sharpen his game at home in Florida, honing his driving and iron play, two aspects of his skillset that were poor at Sherwood.
The consensus among those who have played Augusta in November is that the course will play much longer because of the colder weather and north wind.
The players can adjust to the course, but one thing they won’t be able to alter is the lack of cheers. With no patrons, it will be much different. It will feel lonely.
Since the PGA Tour’s restart in June, Woods and other pros have talked about how difficult it is to focus during rounds without fans. That will be even more evident come the Sunday at Augusta, a day defined by deafening roars.
Roars or no roars, though, Woods will need to show improved form if his hopes of slipping on a record-equalling sixth green jacket are to come to fruition. He is 15th favourite at present and, to some, that seems generous based on current displays.
However, if there is that one positive to fall in Woods’ favour, it is his health. His back feels sharp and, after missing the cut at the US Open in September, he will want to find his best form in his final tournament of 2020.
Knowing he doesn’t have any more competitive golf after the Masters will add extra motivation to push the body, make the cut and then potentially flirt with contention.
But unless something drastic happens to turn around his otherwise poor performances of late, it is hard to see him achieve a 16th major triumph at Augusta.
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