AUGUSTA, Georgia, April 4 – Tiger Woods has found the form that made him a 14-time major winner, but the 36-year-old legend also finds himself outdriven by younger, larger rivals and giving Masters advice to newcomers.
Woods tees off Thursday morning at Augusta National for the 76th Masters seeking a fifth green jacket, his first Major win since the 2008 US Open and one step closer to the record 18 major titles won by Jack Nicklaus.
After Woods won his first major title 15 years ago at Augusta, courses became longer and players became stronger to meet the challenge he posed.
Now on the comeback trail in a world he created, Woods comes into the Masters having snapped a 2 1/2-year US PGA win drought last month at Bay Hill in the aftermath of injuries and his infamous sex scandal.
While it has been a long time since Woods played so well, the winner of 72 career titles still paints himself in something of an underdog role compared to younger, stronger players.
“Consistently, with this type of control, it has been a few years,” Woods said. “As far as having the speed and the pop in my game, it has been a very long time.
“I think I have more shots than I did in 2000. I guess I’m not driving the ball as far, but I’m longer than I was in 2000. So it’s a different game. The guys are much taller, much bigger, much more athletic.
“The game has become bigger and stronger. Before, when I played back in 2000, the big carry was 280 (yards). That was a big carry over a corner. Now that has been moved out to 315, 320. It’s just a different number now.”
Woods in 2000 was in the heart of his “Tiger Slam” run of four major titles in a row. Despite two major swing changes since, Woods finds his mastery of shotmaking similar to his glory days.
“As far as controlling my game, I feel like I’m hitting the ball just as consistently day in and day out as I did then,” he said.
With a victory on Sunday, Woods could also match Nicklaus for second on the all-time US PGA win list with a 73rd overall crown, nine shy of Sam Snead’s all-time record.
“I would like the green jacket more,” Woods said. “I know the 73 would be a by-product of it, but I’m here for the green jacket.”
Woods is also at Augusta National to dispense advice, much the way he learned secrets of the course from Arnold Palmer and Nicklaus in bygone days, such as a practice round with Nicklaus in 1995 as an amateur.
“Jack that year told me some of the putts he has hit over the years, the strategy on how to play certain flags,” Woods said. “At the time it was all about the different angles.”
Now Woods finds himself being asked for advice by such rivals as his Tuesday playing partner, Sean O’Hair.
“I do help them,” Woods said. “We were talking about the golf course and what flag you fire at and where do you want to miss it to this flag, where do you hit over the green to this, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
“I help him as much as I possibly can. I think it’s just the role of being here as a champion and being here a number of years is that you pass knowledge on. It’s not something that we hold and are going to keep sacred. We pass it on from one generation to the next.”
Asked to reflect on how much had changed in his personal life since 2010, when he returned from a sex scandal hiatus at the Masters vowing greater respect for fans and the game, Woods retreated to a familiar topic — golf.
“It was also coming here to a golf course that I know,” Woods said. “Knowing how to play it, and just the history behind this tournament just makes it so special.”