2019 Masters: 14 years removed from his last green jacket, can Tiger Woods win another?
As he approaches his mid-40s, is it safe to rule out Woods at the Masters?
What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Tiger Woods and the Masters? Is it his 1997 rout over Tom Kite and Co. in which the only question from Day 2 on was "by how much?" Is it the chip in from the 2005 Masters in which he went on to bogey the final two holes but won in a playoff anyway? Maybe it's the 2001 completion of the Tiger Slam as he took down David Duval by two and Phil Mickelson by three?
Whichever moment comes to mind, it will inevitably lead to the question that all of us consider about when we think about Tiger Woods and the Masters: Can he ever do it again? Maybe this is a forced narrative because, if you're in the tournament, of course you can do it. Maybe the better question is: Will he ever do it again?
The evidence we have of Tiger's recent play, the history of 40-year-olds at majors and the reality of your chances of winning any major would all point to a single, simple answer: No.
But for anyone who has watched and followed Woods throughout his career, you know it's never that simple. Augusta National is never short on unearthing magic where it seems there is only fallow ground to be found. Couple that with Woods' history and you have an explosive pairing that could result in a win -- or wins -- but will absolutely give us some moments down the stretch of his professional career.
So with that question as our thesis, let's look at Tiger's Masters profile and try to figure out whether Woods can ever top Arnold Palmer's four jackets and get within one of Jack Nicklaus's six.
Masters profile: Tiger Woods
Masters played: 21 | Cuts made: 20 | Top 10 finishes: 13
Scoring average: 70.93
Best finish: Won in 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2005
2019 OWGR: No. 14 | 2019 strokes gained: No. 6 | 2019 Odds: 25-1
History: Woods is either the best to ever play Augusta or the second best. His wins and scoring average speak for themselves. His scoring average is the only one in history under 71, and the only player in his stratosphere (minimum 25 rounds) is Phil Mickelson at 71.3. His average finish as a pro is 9.8 (his average!).
Current form: It probably doesn't feel like it because he only has one top-10 finish his calendar year, but Tiger has been really strong -- four top 30s, and more importantly, he's top 10 on the PGA Tour in strokes gained. One of the consequences of being Tiger Woods and playing a Tiger Woods-like schedule is that all of your events are against the other best 30 or best 50 players in the world, and you don't get to (or choose to) juice the results by playing in the Valspar Championship (like he did last year).
Best ... and worst: This takes us back to the first question. It's user's choice over which of his four titles was the very best, but I would probably still ride with 1997. For the history of it. For the writing that flowed out of it. One interesting note here is that Tiger has only led or co-led after five rounds in Masters history (not including the final round). He led after the second and third round in 1997 and after the third round in 2001, 2002 and 2005. He won them all. Only twice as a pro has Woods finished outside the top 25 at this tournament. Once was in 2012 when he finished T40 and shot 293. The other was last year when he finished T32 and shot 289. Shout out to that silly T17 in 2015 when he hadn't played for two months and finished inside the top 20.
Stats matter: Tiger is top 10 on the PGA Tour in strokes gained from tee to green and near the leaders in both proximity to the hole from 150-plus and 200-plus yards and proximity to the hole overall. The weakest part of his game traditionally -- with his driver -- has even been a strength this year as he's gaining strokes off the tee. His match play work wasn't ideal, and I think he's been more inconsistent this season than we imagined he would be, but the stats are definitely there.
Masters moment(s): If we're looking at individual moments, you have to go with the chip on No. 16 in 2005, right?, we tried that chip from that spot with that pin location. It's impossible. You can't make it. He made it. And it tied him with Arnold Palmer.
Why he'll win: Institutional knowledge combined with a great approach game so far in 2019. He's still one of the handful of purest ball-strikers alive, and he has the numbers to prove it. He knows all the misses at Augusta. He knows all the breaks and peaks and valleys. He has it all downloaded, ready to access at any moment.
Plus -- and this is the more ethereal portion of this (and his) story -- Augusta is a memory-maker. Legends only need apply. There's going to be a year -- I promise you there's going to be a year (and help us if it's the same year) -- over the next five years when Woods and Mickelson are both in the heat of it on the weekend, on a Sunday, and have a real chance to win. It's happened with most every legend who's teed it up there, though few have capitalized. It will happen with them. I don't know if it will be this year, but we will have a real moment in the near future where we say, If Tiger makes this putt or sticks this shot (or whatever it is), he's going to win the Masters.
Why he won't win: Because he has to beat Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas (among many others!) in the same week. This gets at the overall problem Woods has in his remaining time at Augusta. Think of it this way: Even in his absolute prime (let's call it from 1997 to 2010), Woods won less than 30 percent of his starts at Augusta. If we're being realistic here and saying he has five really great chances left here, that would mean even an in-his-prime Tiger would only win, what, probably one of them? Toss in the fact that he hasn't won a major in over a decade and the reality that he has admitted that the margin at the top of the game in terms of talent has closed over the years, and it's not a recipe for Tiger winning a fifth green jacket.
"I think that equipment has made [the level of competition] smaller," said Woods recently. "The margin is much smaller than it used to be. Now look at these heads, 460 CCs, you hit the ball anywhere on the face and have it go 300 yards. Before it put a premium on good ball-strikers to hit the ball in the middle of the face each and every time. And there was a distinction between the guys who could do that and the guys who couldn't. And that's no longer the case."
Prediction: Woods will legit contend over the first two days and find his way into one of the final pairings on Saturday before fading in the third round but finishing in the top 15. Think Rory McIlroy in 2016.
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