Tiger Woods reckons he’s in middle of his prime

Tiger Woods was in jovial mood when he chatted to the world's media yesterday. Picture: Getty
Tiger Woods was in jovial mood when he chatted to the world's media yesterday. Picture: Getty
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ONLY time will tell if this week is, indeed, the time for him to finally kickstart his bid to beat Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors.

For starters, though, Tiger Woods at long last is beginning to let his guard down to show a human side to his nature.

On more than one occasion during his 30-minute interview ahead of the 77th Masters, Woods actually looked as though he was enjoying his grilling and even offered a little perspective into some of the things that are clearly making him happier with life at the moment.

Take, for instance, when he was asked if being the father of two young children would make it more difficult to remain as world No 1 – the mantle he reclaimed last month for the first time since October 2010 – than when he had a vice-like grip on that position and racked up 14 majors.

“No, life is better. Life is all better since I’ve had kids,” he replied. In the past, that’s all he’d have offered in response to such a question. But not on this occasion. Without any further probing, Woods added: “It’s a beautiful juggling act. I think parents in here will attest to that. To be able to be part of their life and watch them grow and help them grow is a joy in life.

“Getting out there and taking them out on the golf course with me is what it’s all about. Spending quality time on the course was how I was introduced to the game and that’s how I built such a great relationship with my ­father.”

It was an interview that even prompted the occasional bout of laughter from his audience – a rare occurrence when Woods has been the man in the media centre hotseat, especially in recent years after his world was turned upside down due to the infidelity that cost him his marriage.

He especially enjoyed being asked about Guan Tianlang, who, at 14, will become the youngest player to compete in the opening major of the season and someone Woods knows extremely well. At the 2010 HSBC Champions event in Shanghai, Guan played a 212-yard par-3 from the same tee as Woods and struck it to almost the same ­distance.

Asked about meeting up again with Guan here earlier in the week, Woods said: “He asked a lot of game questions, whether it’s what I am doing in my own game or a strategy on the golf course – both practice and playing.” And what had Woods asked him about? “School and stuff like that,” he added to laughter in the room. “I’m kind of making a half-joke about it, but when I first played here at the age of 19 I was getting ready for mid-term exams and things like that.”

When it comes to sitting the Augusta exam set by Alister MacKenzie and subsequently made even more difficult by all sorts of lengthening that has taken place over the years, no-one has passed it more over the past 20 years than Woods.

He claimed three Green Jackets in six years from 1997, won again in 2005 and has only once finished outside the top six in seven appearances since then. “I wouldn’t have been happy with that,” said Woods to being asked what he’d have thought in 2005 if it was going to bethe end of his successful spell in the event.

He’s back this year, though, feeling confident about not only returning to winning ways but also claiming his first major since the 2008 US Open. He has been stuck on the 14-mark ever since, but now, on the back of three wins already this season and re-establishing himself as the world’s top player, the sporting world is waiting with bated breath to see if the Woods of old is ready to dominate the major scene again.

“I’m comfortable with every aspect of game,” declared the 37-year-old, who is making his 19th appearance in the event. “I feel that I’ve improved and got more consistent and I think the wins show that. Winning three times already this year is something I’m proud of and hopefully I can continue it this week and for the rest of the year.”

Woods recently went public to announce that he was dating US Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn, though it was being reported in an American tabloid yesterday that the relationship could already be on the rocks. While that didn’t come up in his interview, he was asked if being happier in life was translating into his performances on the course.

“I think life is all about having a balance and trying to find equilibrium and not getting things one way or the other,” he said. “And I feel very balanced.”

Crucially this week, he also feels he has arrived at Augusta with a putting touch that had deserted him but has returned with a vengeance. “I’ve been there on Sundays in recent years with a chance and I was there ball-striking wise, but didn’t get it done. You have to putt well here – you have to make a lot of putts.

“The only person that theoretically didn’t really putt well here was Vijay [Singh] when he won and he hit more greens than anybody has ever hit. But generally you have to make the majority of the putts inside 10 ft and you also have to be a great lag-putter for the week.”

Some think the clock is ticking on Tiger’s quest to become the game’s greatest player. Not him, however. “We have very expansive careers and I feel like I’m basically right in the middle of mine,” he said, ominously.

And it appears Steve Stricker is partly responsible for Woods’ resurgence, giving him a putting tip ahead of the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral which the 14-time major winner went on to win for the seventh time. “I played 14 holes with him on Sunday and he’s hitting it nicely,” Stricker said. “Looks like he’s got a ton of confidence in that putter, too, which you need to go around here or anywhere if you’re going to win a golf ­tournament.

“It looks like he’s comfortable in his game and what he’s doing and I expect him to be in the mix come Sunday for sure.”

And does Woods return the favour when Stricker, who is playing a limited schedule this year, needs advice? “Yeah, it’s mutual,” the 46-year-old said with a smile.