THE question was long; the answer short and to the point. “I worked my ass off,” Tiger Woods replied to being asked how he’d managed to transform himself from car-crash viewing two months ago into believing he can win his fifth Masters this week.
His sheer presence alone for the 79th Masters after taking a self-imposed break due to chipping woes and fitness issues has added another tier of interest in the week Rory McIlroy is bidding to join Woods and four others as the only players to complete golf’s career Grand Slam.
What is now making the Tiger story even more fascinating is that, over the past two days, he seems to have been on a charm offensive, two words that have never been used before during his career. He has hugged players on the range, smiled like a Cheshire cat and makes a rare appearance today in the Par 3 Tournament, where his two young children, Sam and Charlie, will share caddying duties.
It’s just not the Woods we’ve known, particularly since his world was turned upside down on the back of him admitting extramarital affairs a few years ago, and the cynical side of this correspondent is already wondering just how long this friend-to-one-and-all attitude will last.
However, there is no doubting the fact that his success in turning around a game that was in tatters to get it to a point where he is not just here but talking about feeling he can win is hugely impressive. It involved some frustration to the extent that clubs were sometimes being thrown, but an exhausting process has proved worthwhile.
“People would never understand how much work I put in to come back and do this again,” said Woods as he looked forward to making his first competitive appearance since withdrawing from the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in the first week of February. “It was sun up to sun down. When the kids were at school I’d be doing it. When the kids were asleep, I’d still be doing it. So it was a lot of work.
There were times when clubs flew… some pretty good distances tooTiger Woods
“There were times when there were a few clubs that flew, suddenly slipping out of my hand and travelling some pretty good distances, too. There were some frustrating moments, but I had to stick with it. We just kept working shot for shot, hour after hour.”
The 39-year-old had hoped to be back for the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill three weeks ago. That came just too quick, though, as he worked painstakingly to the point he has reached heading into the season’s opening major.
“There was really no moment like that,” he replied to being asked when he felt everything had clicked. “It was a slow and steady progression each and every day. We just took little bits and by the time the sun set I was a better player than I had been when it came up. We didn’t make big, giant leaps, just got better incrementally.”
It is ten years since Woods won here. It is getting close to six years since his last major triumph. Make no mistake, however. He is here believing that he can kick-start his career by landing what would probably be the most incredible success in an incredible career.
“I prepare to win and I feel my game is ready to go and do that again,” he declared, claiming his chipping yips had been caused by technical changes to his swing since ditching Sean Foley and linking up with Chris Como. “I was caught between two (swing) release patterns and I had to get rid of that and make sure I had one release pattern in me. It took a while. It took a lot of hard work. But I finally got to the point where I feel I can do it now.”
Normally, Woods has gone out of his way to keep anything to do with either himself or his family out of the public domain. It was a surprise, therefore, to see his girlfriend, Olympic skiing champion Lindsey Vonn, on the practice range here yesterday along with his two kids. Today, they will join their dad as he plays in the Par 3 event, having reflected on family memories he shared with his own father, Earl, at this event, and decided it is time to open a new chapter.
“We all know what happened in ’97, when my dad was pronounced dead at one point earlier that year, came back and then I won The Masters,” said Woods. “To now have come full circle and have a chance to have my kids out there and to be able to share that with them is special. It just means the world to me. They are excited, I’m excited and can’t wait to get out there.”
Not that he has any intention of winning today, however, knowing full well that the victor of the fun event has never gone on to claim the Green Jacket the same week. “I’ve been low before in it,” he recalled. “I’ve been six-under through eight and, for some reason, the wind came up and I hit two balls in the water on nine,” he recalled with a smile, having done so intentionally, as was the case when he was due to be in a play-off one year but didn’t turn up for it.
Of the five players to have completed the career Grand Slam, Woods, of course, is the most recent. He achieved the feat in style, too, by following up a 15-shot victory in the US Open at Pebble Beach by winning the Open Championship by eight shots at St Andrews.
“I couldn’t ask for a better place to do it – at the home of golf,” he said with another flash of those glistening white teeth. “Now you couldn’t ask for the other better place for Rory to do it – here at Augusta. It doesn’t get better than that. It’s great that he has that opportunity, but he’s going to have that opportunity again for decades to come and I’m sure he’ll have many Green Jackets in his closet when it’s all said and done.”
As for what continues to get Woods’ juices flowing, that has never changed. “Winning – I like it,” he declared at the end what had to be one of the friendliest press conferences in his career.
We’ll just have to wait and see if he’s got the game to back up that cheery disposition.
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