It has been eight years since Tiger Woods last won the Masters.
Eight years since Woods holed that too good to be true pitch shot at the 16th hole, the one that took its own sweet time before falling into the cup, the swoosh-stamped ball pausing for an instant to tease the world before tumbling in, igniting a roar that shook the pines and every soul watching at Augusta National and a thousand points beyond.
That was when it seemed Woods could do anything, though the reality was he bogeyed the next two holes after his imagination-rattling pitch-in to fall into a playoff with Chris DiMarco before scratching out his fourth Masters victory.
Since that April Sunday in 2005, Woods has been like a moth to a light on a summer evening, flitting all around another Masters victory but not getting one. He’s finished sixth or better every year but last year when he tied for 40th.
It’s been a long time, however, since Woods arrived at the Masters the way he arrives for this one.
“It’s been a few years,” Woods said at Bay Hill when asked the last time he felt as enthused about his game with the Masters at hand.
He is back at No. 1 in the world, his public fall from grace, his injuries and another swing change, having faded into the background.
Less than two years ago, Woods had slipped to 58th in the world rankings while doubters clustered, believing he wouldn’t regain what he had lost on the golf course.
Instead, Woods – who recently put his private life on public display with the release of photos with his new girlfriend, Lindsey Vonn – has won six PGA Tour events over the past 13 months or, 30 percent of his starts. That’s better than his career winning percent of 25.8.
Consider this: Luke Donald, Hunter Mahan, Matt Kuchar, Nick Watney and Brandt Snedeker are each ranked among the top 25 in the world.
Each of them has won five PGA Tour events – in their careers.
After finishing second to Woods at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral last month, Steve Stricker – who’s still hearing it from other pros for giving Woods a putting lesson that week – said this about Tiger:
“His attitude and what I saw (at Doral), his belief in himself again, looks very similar to where he was in the early 2000s or you can pick any (year), I guess, when he was playing great.
“He just seems in a better place mentally, to me. He seems to be having fun. Seems to have a lot of confidence in himself and his game.”
This is not about being back.
“Never left,” Woods answered when asked if his victory at Torrey Pines in late January showed he was back.
This is about the next stage of Woods’ career. He won with a homemade swing, with another swing taught by Butch Harmon, then another cultivated by Hank Haney. Accused of being bullheaded for insisting he could rebuild his game again using Sean Foley’s new age teachings, Woods has made it happen.
The next step is winning his 15th professional major championship. Eight years since his last Masters victory and nearly five years since he beat Rocco Mediate in a playoff to win the 2008 U.S. Open, Woods’ quest to break Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors has stalled.
Once a foregone conclusion, Woods catching and passing Nicklaus is now an open-ended question.
“Is he going to be back to the game he had in 2000 or 2001? Probably not,” ESPN golf analyst Curtis Strange said. “Is he back to being a consistent contender, an intimidating figure? Yeah, I think he’s very, very close to being back in that respect. Is he back to winning majors? Well, we have yet to see.”
In the career race, Woods stands dead even with Nicklaus. At age 37, Woods has played 60 majors and won 14, the same numbers Nicklaus had at the same age. It took Nicklaus nine more years to win his last four majors.
If there has been a single factor that has kept Woods from winning at Augusta in recent years, it’s been putting. It isn’t glamorous but winning the Masters is often about who makes the most five-footers for par over four days.
Ask Phil Mickelson.
It’s what separated Woods for so many years and it’s what has dulled at Augusta the last few years.
“Let’s face it, no one on the face of the earth has ever putted like Tiger Woods putts, especially under pressure. Now that he’s putting good again, he can finish dead last in fairways hit at Bay Hill and win like he did finishing dead last at Torrey Pines and winning. Nobody else can do that,” said ESPN’s Paul Azinger.
This year, Woods leads the tour in strokes gained putting, perhaps the strongest indicator that this might be the year he wins a fifth green jacket.
This Masters may ultimately be about someone else – Rory McIlroy or Lee Westwood or Mickelson. But it begins – again – with Tiger Woods.
“To me the anticipation is almost like a heavyweight fight; when Ali is getting ready to step into the ring with Foreman or Frazier or when Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns are about to step into the ring or Mike Tyson against Riddick Bowe,” Azinger said. “The anticipation for this Masters (is) to see if Tiger can win four out of five and get his first major now that he’s making every putt.”
The bell rings Thursday morning.