Can Tiger Woods find his missing game in time for the Masters?

Golf

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — A trip to Augusta National is possible this week for Tiger Woods, and perhaps that memorable trip down Magnolia Lane and the accompanying good-vibes jolt from being on the property will spark something we have yet to see in 2000.

Whenever it is that Woods heads to Augusta to prepare for the Masters, it will be his first time back since his stirring 2019 victory, which now seems like a long, long time ago.

The tournament was postponed in April because of the coronavirus pandemic, meaning 19 months will have passed since Woods donned the green jacket for the fifth time. He staged a “quarantine” champions dinner at his home in April, but his game has seemingly never emerged.

Since winning his 15th major title, Woods has played 17 worldwide events, including the Presidents Cup, without a lot of success. There was the three-tournament run last fall in which he won the Zozo Championship for his 82nd PGA Tour victory, finished fourth at the Hero World Challenge, and then led the U.S. team to victory as captain at the Presidents Cup, where he went 3-0 at Royal Melbourne.

Outside of those tournaments, Woods had three missed cuts and a withdrawal, and his only two top-10s were ninth-place finishes at the 2019 Memorial and the 2020 Farmers Insurance Open.

Even a return this weekend to Sherwood Country Club — where he won his own World Challenge charity event five times and finished runner-up on another five occasions — couldn’t produce any magic, as Woods played his first nine holes of his title defense of the relocated Zozo Championship in 3 over par and was never a factor.

“I played the par 5s awful,” Woods said. “This golf course is one of the golf courses you have to take advantage of all the par 5s. They’re all reachable and I did not do that well this week. I played them probably around even par [actually 3 under] if not over par for the week.

“I did not drive the ball and didn’t hit my irons close enough consistently. The only thing I can take out of this week that I did positively, I feel like each and every day and pretty much every hole is I putted well. I feel like I rolled it great. Unfortunately, they were all — most of them were for pars and a couple for bogeys here and there, but not enough for birdies.”

The lead-up to the Masters in 2019 saw Woods play five times in the three months prior to the tournament, with his best result a tie for fifth at the WGC-Match Play. He was not a back-nine contender at the Farmers Insurance Open (20th), the Genesis Invitational (15th) or the WGC-Mexico Championship (10th)

But those results were far better than what we’ve seen since in the post-shutdown events. Woods’ best tournament was a tie for 37th at the PGA Championship. He missed the cut at the U.S. Open. In each of the six tournaments he played, Woods was never closer than 8 shots through 36 holes.

At least he showed some flashes at the first five events, where he gained strokes on the field in approach to the green. But even that aspect of his game was off at Sherwood, where he was near the bottom of the field.

And not much else was very good. Woods was 70th in the 77-player field in strokes gained off the tee; 71st in stroke gained tee to green; 55th in proximity to the hole; 21st in strokes gained around the green; and 65th in strokes gained putting.

None of this bodes well for a title defense at the Masters, where Woods will undoubtedly get a boost from being on such hallowed ground, but he will not benefit from spectators, since there won’t be any, and he still needs to do what he’s been unable to do all year, which is put a solid 72 holes together.

“Work needs to done,” said Joe LaCava, Woods’ caddie. “Good news is he’s not afraid of hard work. So he’ll get home, relax for a couple of days and get after it.”

LaCava said Woods did not say anything to him about Houston. Woods said he’d make a call early in the week. Either way, Woods pledged to be back training Monday to try to put the pieces of his game together.

“I think it all needs work,” LaCava said. “And he realizes that. Nothing was really bad, but nothing was really sharp. The biggest positive form the week is he felt pretty decent each and every day. And after the rounds he still felt pretty strong. And those were five-hour rounds — tough, soft walks. That’s a good sign.”

The hope for Woods is that the switch will flip as soon as he makes the turn off Washington Road onto club property.

Does hitting balls again amid the surroundings of some his greatest success make a difference?

Undoubtedly, Woods was moved to victory last year. The circumstances this time will be far different. He knows that and wonders about it like everyone else.

“Well, I know the golf course,” said Woods, who will be playing the tournament for the 23rd time. “So it’s not a new golf course, and maybe a little bit longer and a little bit softer [in November] than we’ve probably experienced. But you just never know. This time of year, it could be in the 70s. It could be in the 30s. Who knows?”

And who knows what Woods will bring? Expectations are far lower this time than they were in 2019 — and even then, they were not sky-high, just much more hopeful.

Perhaps the best thing Woods has going for him is relative health. There will be no more tournament golf for him in 2020 after the Masters. He can push himself more, and if it is true that he is really feeling decent, maybe he can get after the deficiencies in his game.

“He’s certainly feeling better than the last stretch from the PGA Championship through the U.S. Open,” LaCava said. “And that, in turn, will allow him to practice. Now, he still has to put the time in and work at it. Which he will.”

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