AUGUSTA, Ga. -- One of the Augusta National green jackets was making the rounds before the Masters Tournament this week, saying hello to some familiar faces among the invading global press corps.
He was asked how things were shaping up.
"Well, a lot better this year," he said.
Huh, come again?
"Have you forgotten what Monday was like last year?" he said, rolling his eyes.
Nope, and not for a lack of trying.
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Last April, Tiger Woods and his personal debacle nearly engulfed the Masters whole. Monday of tournament week last spring, he fully faced the music and fielded questions for the first time in the five months since the sex scandal first began to pollute and populate the nation's sports pages. It was terse and worse.
It was so surreal, reporters covering Woods' pre-Masters press conference were issued numbered tickets, which were collected at the door. It was standing-room only.
This time around, things took another step toward normalcy on Tuesday for Woods, who was as confident, brash, evasive and combative as ever. Now, if his golf game comes around, as he all but predicted it would, it'll be like he was never gone. Well, other than the part about his personal reputation.
Woods has made incremental steps toward recapturing some shred of his old form -- he dropped to seventh in the world this week, his lowest standing since before he won the Masters in 1997 -- but he sure talked a good game on Tuesday when he again faced the ink-slinging scribes and TV types.
Asked if he feels his game is sound enough to win, Woods flashed that trademark smirk and grunted an affirmative.
"Ummm, hmmm," he said.
Like, with which parts?
"Everything," he said.
No equivocation there, huh? When told that Ian Poulter had dismissed Woods' chances of finishing in the top five this week, which would easily represent his best finish, Woods all but sniffed.
|Tiger Woods has changed putter models this spring trying to fix what was once the most feared part of his game. (Getty Images)|
Perhaps the most unnoticed portion of the proceedings came when a green jacket noted that Woods, 35, is playing in the Masters for the 17th time, eliciting a small chuckle from the four-time tournament winner and former world No. 1. Woods used to seem young and rather spry, hip. That's no longer the case.
Woods has been moving steadily backward in the rankings, changing his swing, his short game, his putting stroke and his coach. Yet, even while laying out the laundry list of obstacles in his path, he blew forth with familiar bravado about his chances this week, where he ranks second behind defending champion Phil Mickelson in the betting line. Which only means some folks are betting with their hearts, not their heads.
Despite a career-worst drought that stretches back 19 months without a PGA Tour title -- he hasn't won at Augusta since 2005, his longest winless skein in the four majors -- Woods never hesitated when asked if we had seen his best days.
"No," he said sharply, offering no illumination.
Pressed, given that the current facts don't fit his premise even remotely, Woods laughed. Maybe this falls under the heading of whistling in the graveyard, but he sounds like he's not lacking for confidence in spite of the fact that he hasn’t contended in months.
"Well, I believe in myself," he said. "There's nothing wrong with believing in myself. God, I hope you guys feel the same way about yourselves. You know, that's the whole idea, that you can always become better."
Nothing remotely close to a renaissance is going to happen this week if he putts the way he has over the past five Masters incarnations. Every Sunday night, almost without fail, he has groused about his inability to putt well for the week, and how it cost him a shot at the title.
The putter, no question, is the most crucial club in the bag. Woods has been swapping between two or three different models this spring, looking for a solution for what was once the most-feared part of his arsenal. When he needed a putt, he usually willed it into the hole. Lately, nobody even blinks when he misses -- the surprise is when they go in nowadays
"Yeah, not putting well certainly has cost me a few Masters," he said. "And you know, I felt that I had a pretty good shot on a couple of different occasions to win on the back nine and just putted poorly.
"I have been streaky here for some reason, and you can't be streaky here. You have to get it going and you have to keep it going. The years that I've won here, I've putted well the entire week. You can't just putt well for 18 holes or even nine hole stretches. You have to keep it going, avoid three putts, and have perfect pace all week.
"No matter how you play the golf course, no matter how well you play, you're going to have to make six and eight footers for par. It's just a given here. Some of those years, I didn't make those putts and that's what has kept me out of the winner's circle."
Though Poulter is hardly the lone aficionado who feels Woods' chances this week are slim, the former world No. 1 does has some history on his side. Even though he hasn’t won at Augusta since 2005, he hasn’t finished worse that T6 in that span, either.
Then again, he has had forgettable, if not awful, finishes at a series of courses lately where he once dominated, including Firestone, St. Andrews, Torrey Pines and Bay Hill.
"There's so much work that has to be done between now, 63 holes basically, to get yourself to that back nine [on Sunday]," he said. "It's so much work.
"I just want to be a part of that action and let the chips fall where they may. I just need to be part of that action. That's how you win those tournaments, is you just need to be there."
Woods stands four majors shy of Jack Nicklaus record. Slings and arrows aside, he still believes he can reach that destination, which has never been more in doubt. In fact, he says that's the whole intention.
"No, I absolutely want to do it," he said. "That's the benchmark, the gold standard in this sport."
Whether Woods ever goes for the gold again, one thing was certain on Tuesday. In terms of his demeanor, he's neither chastened nor short on brass.