Tiger Woods comes to the Masters as the No. 1 ranked player in the world.
But can he win at Augusta when he can’t hit fairways?
That’s the rub this week as the thoroughbreds of the game gather at one of golf’s greatest shrines, the first major of the year, the Masters.
Woods has climbed back to No. 1 after a roller-coaster life both physically and emotionally since he tore up his knee and marriage. He’s done it with the flat iron. After absorbing a tip from Steven Stricker, Woods has used that putting stroke to distance him from the field. His win at Bay Hill was impressive, a record-setter. But even there, he found himself behind trees, in the rough, in other fairways and threatening the galleries.
It will be hard to win the Masters if he sprays the ball this week.
Woods ranks 147th in driving accuracy. In 17 rounds, he’s hit 125 of 224 fairways, or 55.80 percent. Compare that with the PGA Tour’s leader, Ken Duke. In 29 rounds, he’s hit 73 percent fairways. Of course, Duke hasn’t exactly cashed in a trunkload of checks. Jeff Maggert is second, followed by Jin Par at No. 3; No. 4 is Graeme McDowell, who is fifth in Top 10 finishes this year.
Driving the ball accurately is akin to placing a train on a track. It starts everything. From confidence, line of sight, club selection, approaches, lies, confidence if a guy hits the fairway, the stage is set for good if not great scores.
That’s why it’s amazing to me that Woods ranks No. 1 after winning at Torrey Pines, TPC Blue Monster Doral and at Bay Hill. In all three of those victories, his driver was inconsistent.
Perhaps it underscores the wisdom of that old saying, “You drive for show and putt for dough.”
Putting is the great equalizer.
In 17 rounds, Woods ranks No. 1 in PGA Tour statistics in strokes gained by putting. That is amazing and it underscores the difference in his game, the margin of winning and losing.
This is why this week will be so interesting. Basically, Tiger is not going to hit fairways. He may choose to take his driver out of play and use a fairway wood or even a 1 or 2 iron, but stats say he gets on the tee and takes Tiger swings and the ball mostly gets away from him on the right side.
Augusta is not a place you want to play from a bed of pine needles. It’s a stroke eater to leave the fairway. It’s a course that TV doesn’t do justice because on TV you can’t see the change in elevation of the fairways and where they slope.
But can Woods make up for his mistakes with his short game and putter?
He’s done it in 2013 so far.
But Augusta is different, so is the setting. And the course has changed with the game. He’d better hit it straight.
Woods explained just how technology has changed how players attack Augusta since he turned professional in 1997. It used to have tighter and faster fairways. Tiger has to get in position to use that technology, and it will fail him if Woods is in the woods.
“I remember playing practice rounds with Seve and Ollie and Raymond and having them basically school me on how to hit shots with a 7‑iron through 4‑iron, what spins, what angles, how to roll my hands, how to hold the face, all these different things. We don't play those shots here anymore. The grass is too thick, too lush. So it's a much different game. Guys are bringing out 64‑ and 62‑degree wedges this week, just for this week, because of how lush and dense it is. It's just sticky around the greens. It's so different than what we used to do and what we used to play.”
Woods said short-driving players like Zach Johnson still have opportunities to win but long hitters have also been champions.
“You just got to be really good with wedging. But you still have that opportunity to play so many different ways, but you'd better be precise, either way, whether you're long or you're short. This golf course just demands being precise.”
And so the hunt is on.
Can Tiger win from the rough?
Even his great putting can't save him from that. If he sprays off the tee, he will be left behind.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.