Can Tiger Woods contend at this delayed Masters? Of course he can. Let’s go to the YouTube tape.
Here he is in the 2008 Masters, with his various body parts starting to fail him, with an upper body way too big to be supported by his spindly legs, yet he was able to finish second.
Let’s click on April 2010, his scandal in full bloom, but Woods, playing in his first event in half a year, was still able to finish in a tie for fourth.
Let’s revisit April 2011, when Woods, despite looking scoopy on some chip shots and missing some must-make short putts, still managed another T4 finish.
And many of us have looked at the oddness of the 2013 Masters, when, with a rules imbroglio ringing in his ears, Woods was again able to finish in a tie for fourth.
Which brings us to last year’s Masters. (It only seems like it was held in another century.) Without playing anything like his best golf, Woods hung around for 68 holes — he was contending after the first day, after the second day, after the third day, and after the first 14 holes of the fourth day. Then he closed the deal on the final four holes. His 5-iron second shot on the par-5 15th was as pure as any iron ever hit in the history of the Masters. (Really, just to say he pured it is insufficient.) We all know what happened. Tiger Woods won his fifth green jacket.
Yes he can, to borrow a phrase from yesteryear. He can contend.
And if he can contend, he can win.
You, of course, could say that of dozens of players but you would say it most particularly of Tiger Woods. As Jack Nicklaus has said more than once, “When Tiger got himself in position to win, he remembered how to do it.” Throughout his career, when Woods contends, he wins with astonishing frequency.
But in your heart of hearts, do you really think he can pick up his sixth Masters title this week? In Las Vegas, Woods is about a 40 to 1 shot, while Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy are going off at closer to 15 to 1. Woods’s play this year has been south of indifferent. He missed the cut at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. He finished T37 at the PGA Championship at Harding Park. He didn’t look like himself. He looked different. And so has everything else.
Woods has been playing tournament golf, marching along fairways lined with fans, for more than a quarter of a century now — until this year. There were no spectators at Harding Park. There were no spectators at Winged Foot. There will be no spectators at the Masters. It matters. Crowd noise has been like jet fuel for him, prodding him to let his legend grow, as his father put it so memorably.
It is true that Woods has been, often, the most aloof of golfers. But he has also been, as a golfing god, deeply connected to the screaming hordes. His successes have meant so much to us in part because we could see what they meant to him, in part because the story of his golfing life was so unusual and remarkable. Even if you didn’t know the details of the story, you knew the broad strokes, and that was more than enough. You could see the story — his life — on his face, in how he responded to the shots he played. You could see it in how he handled his wins, his opponents, his winner’s interviews. He was the new shiny thing for a long, long time.
But through this hideously long year, the pandemic part of it, Woods’s manner has been subdued. He’s been polite but not at all expansive in interviews. His game has shown not a hint of sparkle, except maybe when he rallied to make the cut at the Memorial. You haven’t seen him kicking in his divot holes with his customary flushed-that-one gusto. He looks thinner than he has in recent years, for a man who develops his game-day body with repeated visits to the gym.
Plus, he has had to deal with . . . life. Being a single father with children in school. Like millions of other people, he’s dealing with the various complications this pandemic has wrought. Tiger’s son and daughter have a new kid brother, after their mother had a third child last year. Tiger has been working with a ghostwriter on a memoir, a process that can be wrenching, if you’re willing to dig deeply enough to make the book worthwhile.
What a subject he could be for himself. It’s not like he’s led an easy life. His physical pain doesn’t ever take a day off. As for his psychic pain, it almost never comes up. Back, his book’s title, could be a place to explore it meaningfully.
Tiger Woods will be 45 at the end of next month. He carries more than we could possibly know. You see him walking down the fairway with his friend and caddie Joe LaCava, along with Justin Thomas and Fred Couples, and they’re all laughing about something, and it’s easy to forget that there is so much we don’t know. It’s easy to skip over all he has done and endured to get to where he is. Examination is messy.
If you’ve been watching Tiger over the years, you know he’s a good actor. You can see it even in his bit as the bored student, to Bryson DeChambeau’s overeager physics professor, in a TV spot for Bridgestone balls. Between takes, he told DeChambeau, “You’re overthinking it, dude.” Woods, always, wants to get done.
Part of his excellence has been the relief and the freedom tournament golf has brought him. This week’s Masters will be almost like a working vacation for him. Few places in the world give Woods more freedom than the manicured acreage inside the braided green-and-white gallery ropes at Augusta, where he won his first major professional title at age 21, in 1997.
His victory at Augusta last year, No. 15, came 11 years after his 14th, at the 2008 U.S. Open, where he hobbled around Torrey Pines for five days. It came nine years after his private life was exposed in a way nobody deserves, the Stiletto Parade appearing daily for a while in the New York Post and the National Enquirer. His 15th win came two years after his drug abuse was revealed by way of a roadside arrest, in the early hours of Memorial Day, 2017. It came after a long litany of surgeries.
His victory at Augusta last year was cathartic for millions for one reason above all others: A man came back. He screwed up but did not give up.
He rose above his pain and his humiliation. Who among us would not want to do the same?
But . . . can he win?
Which means of course he can.
Part of Tiger’s excellence has been the relief and the freedom tournament golf has brought him.
There are some serious longtime Tiger-watchers out there. I’m thinking of Bob Harig of ESPN, Jaime Diaz and Brandel Chamblee of Golf Channel, Doug Ferguson of the AP. Also Steve Williams, Butch Harmon, Tim Finchem, Mark O’Meara. Plus, Phil Knight and Phil Mickelson and Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, may he rest in peace. Earl Woods, the same. Via one particularly memorable and odd 2010 Nike spot, Earl talks to Tiger, and to us, four years after Earl’s death. I have learned a lot about Tiger from all those people.
But here I’d like to turn the focus to the insights of a famous golfer and golf broadcaster who does not immediately take a spot on the Student of Tiger roll. And that golfer and broadcaster is Nick Faldo. Sir Nick.
During a brief stint as a caddie on the European golf tour in 1991, I would sometimes hear players talk about Faldo, but never with any warmth or admiration, except of course for his golf ability. He was considered a high prince of self-absorption.
But I have found in recent years, whenever I have sought out Faldo for his insights into this or that, that he is insightful, knowledgeable and, in his own way, introspective. For a book about Tiger’s comeback that was published in March, I sought out Faldo. From here on out, I’m citing my own Faldo stuff, on (ultimately) the subject of the day here, can Tiger win this week. Here goes:
Faldo told me at the end of 2018 that he felt Tiger could win a Masters, if he had four days of warm weather. Four months after Tiger’s win, I asked Faldo to analyze Tiger’s chances of winning a 16th major. Few people have seen Tiger’s career at closer range, or so dispassionately, and few people have a better understanding of Tiger as a golfer and a man.
Tiger could win another major, Faldo said, but everything would have to fall his way, as it did at Augusta. Warm weather again, good mental and physical health, swing in a good place, a course with no rough. In other words, as Faldo saw it, there continued to be only one major Tiger could win again — the Masters — and then only if the moon was in the seventh house.
And even if Tiger did win a sixth green jacket, Faldo said, it would never mean as much to Woods as his fifth did, 14 years after his fourth, with his daughter and son waiting for him. During the frenzy of victory, and on the CBS broadcast, Faldo had said, “That will be the greatest scene in golf forever.”
It was some statement, given their icy relationship.
The wall between them has benefited Faldo as a commentator. It’s been his liberator. On the Saturday of the 2013 Masters, Faldo was the most prominent golf person to say publicly that Woods should withdraw from the tournament. “Greg Norman said, ‘That’s the best call you’ve ever made on TV,’” Faldo said. “It’s not complicated. If your scorecard is wrong, you’re out of the tournament. You’re at dinner, you get a call from a tournament official. ‘What did you do on 12?’ ‘Oh, my ball was in the ditch, and I dropped it to the left.’ ‘Yeah, that’s not a lateral. You’re DQed, sorry.’ ‘Oh, okay.’ You take it on the chin. We’ve all been there.”
Faldo sees Tiger only now and again. Faldo’s own manner has changed markedly since his prime. He’s approachable. When he was the number one player in the world, he was not. He sees a similar evolution in Tiger, to a degree.
“I think he’s tried to open up, but he’s led essentially a weird life, to be honest,” Faldo said. “You’re a golfer from age three, you follow your father’s guidance, you’re under the spotlight, you create your own world. I think of what Charles Barkley said: ‘I was on his list, and then I wasn’t.’ Tiger’s ever-changing. Two years ago he shows up and suddenly he’s hugging everybody.” Almost everybody. “I never got my hug,” Faldo said.
We were standing on the back of the range at Liberty National. Brooks Koepka was the only person hitting balls. Faldo watched him smash another and said, “Tiger’s not going to beat him, not if they’re both playing out of the rough.” Earlier in the year, at the 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, Woods was asked to compare himself to Koepka when he was Koepka’s age, 29. “Does Brooksie look like a young me?” Woods said. “No. I wish. I was never that big. I was 130 pounds.”
Faldo got big and strong in his prime, as Tiger did later. Faldo never dominated the game the way Tiger did, but he knows what it’s like to be the best player in the world, and he knows the isolated life you lead in an attempt to stay there. Faldo was also once a single man in his mid-40s with young children. Faldo has been married and divorced three times. He has three daughters and a son.
“When you’re on a mission, like Tiger was, like I was, you’re at the front of the ship, and you’re creating a wake, and sometimes that wake isn’t pretty, but still you plow on,” Faldo said. “Then your children grow up, and that changes you. You learn to forgive and to ask for forgiveness.” You never hear Faldo get introspective like that on TV.
Faldo talked about his growing sense of gratitude. “I don’t think you find gratitude,” he said. “I think it hits you. Seeing Seve Ballesteros decline, I realized I was lucky. There were two major components to Seve’s decline. First, he lost his golf game, then he lost his health.
“I realized that I had had my time, that I had given it my best with the knowledge I had. I had a 20-year opportunity. When it’s over, you realize it goes by like that.”
He snapped his fingers.
“And now it’s 30 years ago that I was really good. That’s half my life ago.”
His broadcasting career is now as long as his playing career was.
“I didn’t know myself then,” Faldo said. “I was a driven golfer. That’s it. If I met people for five seconds and they thought I was an ass, then I was an ass to them for the rest of their lives.”
Faldo was talking about himself, but Tiger was lurking.
When Nicklaus won his sixth Masters in 1986, at age 46, he said, “I’d quit now, but I’m not that smart.” Faldo knows how hard it is to say goodbye to the thing you do best and, at least for a while, better than anyone else in the world. “There was a five-year period when I couldn’t play like Nick Faldo could play, and it hurt like hell,” he said. “You want so desperately to go out on a high note. You actually dream of doing that. You say to yourself, If I could just win this one and leave and wave and say, ‘Thank you very much.’“
He tried to imagine Tiger doing that. Just walking away. But he knows that it’s impossible. The drug is too powerful. If you win — if you place, if you show, if you top-10 — you want to keep going. Tiger, Faldo said, would someday find the same thing. There was no way to warn him, to tell Tiger that his own half decade of golf-career purgatory was coming. But it will. Faldo was certain of that.
And then what do you do? The question has been asked forever. There’s the era you own, when you’re in it, and then there are all the days after it, and you have to fill them, too. Michael Jordan found that out. So did Muhammad Ali, Ted Williams, Jesse Owens, the boys in the boat, Seabiscuit, Bobby Jones and all the others. The days do get filled. But it won’t be the same as playing and winning and all that invincibility.
Faldo spoke of the talent, determination, and nerve that tournament golf requires. It takes talent and determination to contend. It takes nerve to close. And nerve dies through lack of use.
“Tiger spent 11 years climbing Mount Everest without oxygen,” Faldo said. From his U.S. Open win at Torrey Pines in 2008 through his fifth green jacket in 2019. “Basically, for 11 years, it all went wrong. And then there was a chance, and he grabbed it.”
That’s what impressed Faldo most — what Tiger did with his chance at that Masters. “To win a Tour event after a five-year hiatus is incredible,” Faldo said. “But to win a major 11 years after you’ve won your last?”
Nick Faldo is a good talker, but he had no words.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Michael_Bamberger@Golf.com