Tiger in peak form heading to Masters

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The major championship he always figured to win the most often has now eluded him longer than any other. The last time he won, Tiger Woods was aided by a dramatic chip shot that shook the Georgia pines, capturing his fourth Masters and outlasting gritty Chris DiMarco in a sudden-death playoff to again ascend to No. 1 in the world.

The date was April 10, 2005.

How long ago has it been?

Jack Nicklaus had played in his last Masters that week, with his final major championship at St. Andrews still to come. Augusta National was a year removed from a membership controversy that caused the tournament to go without corporate sponsorship. Rory McIlroy, all of 15 years old, watched from his home in Northern Ireland, idolizing Woods.

Seven Masters have come and gone, and Woods has captured none of them. Twice, his old nemesis, Phil Mickelson, has worn the green jacket instead. Six times, Woods finished among the top six. Last year, he tied for 40th, his worst Masters finish as a pro. But on each other occasion since his last victory, Woods donned his Sunday red, thinking it would look nice with the jacket, only to drive down Magnolia Lane afterward, frustrated.

Woods is again the big story at the 77th Masters, having regained the No. 1 spot two weeks ago when he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational, his first time atop the rankings in 2½ years. He has won six times in a little more than a year and is looking like the kind of player who can add to his 14 major titles.

But Woods is going on five years without a win in one of the Grand Slam events, and a remarkable eight without the tournament Nicklaus once predicted Woods would win 10 times. And if Tiger is to get back to the business of hauling down the Golden Bear and his record 18 major titles, one needs to come soon. Woods has won all of the other majors at least once since he last won the Masters.

"It's been one of those things where I've been close so many times on that back nine on Sunday, and I just haven't won," Woods said. "I've been in the mix. Been on the periphery and played myself in to the mix. I've been right there with a few holes to go, and it just hasn't happened. Hopefully this year it will be a different story, and I'll be able to put myself there and hopefully have Bubba put the jacket on."

How long has it been?

Facebook was in its first year, Twitter was a year away from being launched and the iPhone would not be unveiled for another two years.

Since then, Woods went T3-T2-2-T6-T4-T4 from 2006 to 2011.

In 2006, he didn't break 70 in any of the rounds, and it was clearly the most frustrating.

"That one hurt the most of any tournament that I have failed to win," said Woods, who finished 3 strokes behind Mickelson and had six 3-putts during the week. "I've lost tournaments before, and I've been through some tough defeats over the years, but nothing like that because I knew my dad would never live to see another major championship.

"At the time, going into that final round and on the back nine, I pressed and I tried to make putts that instead of just allowing it to happen, I tried to force it. I know he was at home watching, and just really wanted to have him be a part of one last major championship victory. And I didn't get it done. It hurt quite a bit."

(Woods' father, Earl, died of cancer on May 3, 2006.)

In 2007, he failed to win a major for the first time when playing in the final group.

In 2008, he finished 3 strokes behind Trevor Immelman, shooting a final-round 72 in cold, windy conditions.

In 2009, playing with Mickelson, a front-nine charge stalled.

In 2010, playing his first tournament of the year following his well-chronicled personal issues, he remarkably started with his lowest-opening round (68), but couldn't mount a Sunday charge and finished 5 strokes behind Mickelson.

In 2011, Woods eagled the eighth, birdied the ninth and was tied for the lead heading to the back nine, but missed a short eagle putt on 15 and finished 4 strokes behind Charl Schwartzel.

Hank Haney, Woods' former coach, boils it down to one thing: putting.

"You have to marry a good putting week with a good ball-striking week," said Haney, who saw Woods win 31 PGA Tour events and six major titles under his guidance from 2004 to 2010. "If Tiger hadn't 3-putted -- and that's a tall order at the Masters -- he would have won six of the last eight.

"Sometimes the statistics say something different, because a lot of times you putt from 2 inches off the green and it doesn't show up as a 3-putt. But he's played well enough to win five or six green jackets in the last eight years. He just hasn't putted well enough."

Haney has long espoused the value of avoiding 3-putts. It seems obvious, but often involves more, such as when to be aggressive on birdie putts, or being able to make up for poor iron play. Putting can often take care of a lot of other problems and Haney has often stressed this point.

"You have to putt well here," Woods said. "You have to make a lot of putts. You have to make the majority of the putts inside 10 feet and you've got to be just a great lag putter for the week. You're going to put the ball in some spots, especially if the wind blows, and it's going to be tough to get the ball close."

In statistics kept by Augusta National, Woods has only three times been ranked among the top 10 in putting (total putts) going back to his first victory in 1997. That year, he didn't have a single 3-putt green.

In 2001, Woods won despite ranking just 37th in putting and having four 3-putts. But he led the field in greens in regulation, as he did the following year when he won again. In 2005, Woods tied for 10th in putting, had three 3-putts and was second in greens.

The glaringly poor putting years were 2006 and 2011, when Woods had six 3-putt greens each time. Cut that in half and he's playing the last hole with a chance to win or tie. He also had three 3-putts in 2010, a year when his ball striking was substandard, as he hit only 49 of 72 greens. (Last year Woods hit only 40 greens.)

"I think Tiger has played well enough to win," Haney said. "If he finishes top 10 in putting, I don't see how he can't win the Masters. But it's not easy to do. He's just had too many 3-putts at Augusta. This is the best putting year he's had. I know we're short into the season, but he's been right at the top in all three of his wins.

"[Brandt] Snedeker was the best putter on tour last year and was only top 10 six times [in tournaments]. It's just not easy to do, and then the odds that you're going to do [it] in one of the majors? But that's really what it all gets down to for Tiger. If Tiger finishes top 10 in putting, he is going to win."

How long has it been?

Woods still had a couple of Titleist clubs in his bag. His current caddie (Joe LaCava) worked for Fred Couples. His current coach (Sean Foley) still lived in Canada. DiMarco, who battled Woods throughout the final round, was ranked among the top 10 in the world and lost his second consecutive major in a playoff.

But by 2005, Augusta National had undergone a series of changes under then-chairman Hootie Johnson that were designed to strengthen the venerable course. Nearly 500 yards was added, stretching the layout to over 7,400 yards; trees were planted in strategic areas, such as to the right of the 11th fairway and on the 15th hole. The rough, known as the "first cut," became a bit more formidable. The seventh, a driver-wedge par-4, became a brute.

In some circles, this was known as "Tiger proofing," a term many suggested would simply play to his strengths.

But two-time U.S. Open champion and ESPN golf analyst Andy North specifically pointed to the seventh and 11th holes -- both of which are much longer now.

"Those two holes I think changed more than any other hole out there with the addition of not distance but adding trees," North said. "If you go back and look at Tiger's numbers, he played those two holes exceptionally well, a bunch under par, before the changes. Since the changes, he's not terrible, but the numbers are really skewed poorly compared to how good they were. So basically those two holes have changed the way that he's been able to play the golf course. … if you're a half a shot over par on two holes more than you used to be, that's a shot a day over four rounds, that's a bunch of shots.

"That's the difference between winning and finishing fourth."

Woods acknowledged that the changes have made scoring more difficult for him. "It took away the par-5s," he said. "I used to hit driver and iron to every par-5."

But …

"It's still advantageous to hit the ball long and hit the ball high," Woods said. "You look at most of the winners have all been able to move it out there. Whether it's Phil, or Bubba [Watson], Angel [Cabrera], you go around the list, not too many guys are of a shorter version of Trevor Immelman or Weirsy [Mike Weir].

"Most of the guys can hit the ball up in the air and they can move it. You still have to play the par-5s well, and it still helps to be long into those par-5s. And there are certain weeks and certain times when guys have wedged it unbelievably well, and have been successful and been short. Zach [Johnson] being one of them. Never went for the par-5s ever, all 16 of them. So I think that's rare. But you look at most of the guys in the top 10 with a chance to win on Sunday, they're all long hitters."

Or, as Haney put it: "Sure, it made it harder. But it made it harder to overcome the 3-putts. You could make a case it got harder for him. But it got harder for everybody."

How long has it been?

Since capturing the '05 Masters, Woods has won each of the other three majors at least once.

In 2005, he went on to capture the Open Championship at St. Andrews, with top-5 finishes at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship.

In 2006, he won his third Open Championship, winning at Royal Liverpool, then a month later the PGA Championship at Medinah.

In 2007, he matched a major championship scoring record of 63 in third round at Southern Hills and went on to win the PGA Championship.

And in 2008, in perhaps his best performance in a major, Woods won the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in a playoff over Rocco Mediate despite playing on a broken leg.

At the time, the question was "when" not "if" Woods would tie Nicklaus' record. Now, nearly five years later, another major has yet to come, his last Masters victory eight years in the past.

"Yeah, I am surprised," said Steve Stricker, Woods' friend who helped him straighten out his putting several weeks ago. "I didn't realize it's been that long. And everything about this course is suited for his game. So, yeah, it's surprising.

"He's had a couple opportunities in there, I know. That can all change over this next week, and I'm sure he's going to get right in there. It's in a good spot, it seems like. He's happy and he's relaxed and he just feels good."

Woods' mood, his demeanor, has seemed more relaxed in recent weeks, even here. He arrived for a practice round Sunday, and instead of his usual early-morning "dawn patrol" routine, he has been arriving later, playing in the afternoon.

He didn't participate in Wednesday's Par-3 Contest, as has been his custom, but he was on the course earlier in the day along with Fred Couples and Keegan Bradley.

Perhaps all of this is the product of winning, and the confidence that comes with it. Last year, Woods pressed on the weekends of majors, and many suggested that he wanted it too much. He seems more relaxed heading into his 19th Masters.

And yet, how could he not want this Masters, this major, given the way he is playing? For the majors in general and this one in particular, Woods' wait for another can be measured simply as a long one.