It was 1996 and Jack Nicklaus had just seen the future. It was found in the form of a lanky, 6’2″ sophomore out of Stanford who hit the ball unfathomable distances and worked his irons like a blacksmith. The young man was still raw on the greens, but that didn’t matter. Following a practice round with the 20-year-old at the Masters alongside his frenemy Arnold Palmer, Nicklaus took his testimony to the media.
“Both Arnold and I agree that you could take my Masters and his Masters and add them together and this kid should win more than that,” Nicklaus said.
This wasn’t out of left field. Nicklaus had earned the nickname “Carnac” for making expansive, sometimes hyperbolic, predictions like the all-knowing Johnny Carson character. But here’s the thing: Nicklaus was usually right. And over the next decade, the Golden Bear looked like a prophet about the “kid,” one Tiger Woods, who would best Jack and Raymond Floyd’s 17-under-par 271 Masters tournament record and lap the field by 12 strokes just a year later. Woods would win four green jackets in his first nine professional tries; for a moment, it looked like Nicklaus’ 10-plus-victory guess was low.
“This kid is the most fundamentally sound golfer I’ve ever seen at any age,” Nicklaus said. “I don’t know if he’s ready to win yet or not, but he will be the favorite here for the next 20 years …”
Little did he know, Jack finished with the most accurate harbinger of them all.
“… if he isn’t, there’s something wrong.”
Injuries, swing changes, bad luck, a private life gone public. Take your pick for the “something” that, disappointingly for many, has made the final part of Jack’s prophecy come true. What matters is Woods has not won the tournament that made him famous in 14 years.
It’s not that Woods hasn’t been in position to win again; he’s posted three top-three finishes since his last Masters victory, seven top-10s overall. However, a player of his stature is not satisfied with close calls, but with closing the door. So why has Woods been unable to do so lately at Augusta National? We examined Tiger’s early success, and subsequent struggles, and identified four areas that fueled both.
Early on, Tiger dominated Augusta with brute force. At his 1997 triumph, Tiger’s 323.1-yard driving mark didn’t just pace the field. It was 46 yards longer than the tournament average, and 25 yards past anyone else.
Those figures weren’t aberrations. Woods led in driving in four of his first five Masters as a professional; in his four wins, his worst finish in the category was sixth (2002).
The strokes-gained metric has proved “drive for show, putt for dough” is a flawed notion, that—shockingly—it’s easier to score the closer you get to the hole (more on this in a moment). Yet Woods’ distance wasn’t just an asset to his scorecard. It took a psychological toll on his opponents as well. Colin Montgomerie was paired with Woods in the third round of the 1997 Masters, losing to Woods by nine strokes that day. He admitted that the incessant remoteness from his ball to Tiger’s took the Scotsman out of his game.
“The second hole was frightening. I had the honor and I hit my drive to the brow of the hill on the second, just about reaching with my 4-wood,” Montgomerie said. “And he was down—he must have been 150 yards ahead of me and hit a 9-iron to the back.
“This is a game that I had not seen before, and none of us had.”
But Woods saw his advantage sharply decrease in 2003. After averaging second in driving distance his first six years, Woods has cracked the top five just once in his last 13 appearances, and finished in the top quarter percentile just twice:
Some of Woods’ diminishing gains can be correlated to his numerous injuries, a concession Woods has made, partially with early pains to his knees.
“The more the knee hurt, the more I’d have to make alterations in the swing to try to make solid contact,” Woods said in 2005. “The more alterations I made, the more distance I lost, because I was actually moving away from the ball a lot, slowing down, trying not to make it hurt.”
Yet it’s worth noting he remained in relative good health until 2008, well in the midst of this distance decline. So what other elements are at work?
Part of the drop can be attributed to age. It stands to reason that Tiger wouldn’t have as much pop in his 30s and 40s as he did in his early 20s. Butch Harmon, who coached Woods from 1993 to 2003, also chalked the shrinking gap to Woods’ stubbornness to equipment change. “I believe that Tiger’s perceived loss of distance [or the fact that the rest of the tour started catching up to him in the distance category] had more to do with his equipment than his golf swing,” Harmon told Golf Digest in 2008. “He insisted on staying with a 43 3/4-inch steel-shafted driver with a smaller head, while his fellow-competitors were playing 45-inch graphite shafts and jumbo titanium heads.”
But, according to the man himself, swing changes were to blame for the diminished distance. Hoping to take stress and force off the left side of his body, Woods tinkered with his motion. “I don’t snap the leg as much, don’t go at the ball as hard,” Woods said of his swing in 2005.
Lower action, or lack thereof, that can be seen in this 2009 clip versus a bit more body English in 1997:
The numbers back it up. After ranking second in driving distance on tour in 2005, Woods fell to ninth in 2006, 12th the following year and, had he made enough starts in 2008—44th. He would crack the top 20 just once in the following decade.
Luckily for Tiger, his latest swing iteration has incorporated a tad more freedom—and a tad more distance—back into his game.
“Tiger is close to swinging at his very best,” Golf Digest Teaching Professional David Leadbetter recently said. “Overall, I like what he’s doing. But my feeling is, if he’s able to sync his swing a little better, it would be the icing on the cake.”
As he showed at the Players Championship (ranking fifth in strokes gained/off-the-tee) and the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play (where Woods routinely outdrove his competition), that harmony is close. He’ll need everything in-tune, though, at Augusta.
Staying put on Moving Day
“Moving Day at the Masters” is a cliche that conjures its share of headshakes and eyerolls. A debate can be made that it’s more myth than reality. Except when it comes to Woods.
During the third round of his first 12 Masters, Woods broke par nine times. In fact, his 68.83 Saturday scoring mark over this period was the best of his four rounds, and 2.39 strokes lower than his average of the other three.
In turn, it fueled a separation from the field that, in his four victories, served as a catalyst to winning his green jackets.
1997: Began the day with a three-stroke lead over Montgomerie; ended with a nine-shot advantage thanks to a 65.
2001: Two back of Chris DiMarco, Woods’ four-under 68 gave him a one-shot lead into Sunday.
2002: Tied for fourth with four other players and four back of 36-hole leader Vijay Singh, Tiger’s 66 was the low round of the day and gave him a share of the lead with Retief Goosen.
2005: Woods started Round 3—which didn’t begin until mid-Saturday due to rain earlier in the week—six shots back of DiMarco. Though his round carried over to Sunday morning, it included a string of seven birdies from the seventh to 13th that resulted in a seven-under 65, which gave him a three-shot lead heading into the final 18.
Like Hogan with an iron or Palmer with a Ketel One, Woods is the man in the arena on Day 3.
Or at least, was. As of late, Tiger has stood still on Moving Day.
It’s not that Woods has been bad on Saturdays in the past decade; his 70.86 average since 2009 remains 1.57 strokes better than the field average. But he’s broken 70 just once, and it came in 2015, when he began Saturday 12 strokes behind Jordan Spieth and ended it still 10 back.
As for the other years, Tiger’s third round transformed from trampoline into harness. In 2010, he entered Saturday just two behind the leaders, but a so-so 70 left him trailing by four. The next spring, Woods was T-3 and three shots back after 36 holes, but a 74 dropped him to T-9 and seven out. Then—Tiger zealots might want to close their eyes—there was 2013, when Woods went to bed on Friday three back, only to begin Saturday five shots out following a two-stroke penalty to his second-round score. Woods couldn’t rally in the afternoon, his 70 leaving him in T-7 and four shots behind.
A sense of nostalgia always follows Woods, fans praying for a return to what once was. Though some, arguably many, of those pieces of Tiger that made him Tiger will never return, he desperately needs to reinstitute “Caturday” at Augusta. That he ranked first in third-round scoring in 2018 shows it’s a wish grounded in possibility.
His second-shot prowess has plummeted
From the heights of Tigermania to its nadir to its return, the one constant (and unsung) part of Woods’ repertoire has been his second-shot prowess. He led in strokes gained/approach every season in which he qualified from 2006 to 2018. And though that statistic was not part of the parlance in the first half of Woods’ career, his greens-in-regulation percentages (finishing inside the top-six rankings in the category five times from 1997 to 2005) illustrate his iron work was second to none.
It was a performance that also carried to Augusta National, where Tiger finished no worse than T-8 in GIR in eight of his first nine Masters starts. He led the field in greens hit during his first three wins, and came in second in the category during his 2005 victory. Over that span, Tiger averaged a 71.76 GIR mark versus the field’s 59.31 percentage.
Yet that edge has dulled.
In the past decade the field has upped its output, boasting a 61.81 GIR percentage, while Woods has dropped to a respectable, but no longer domineering, 66.47. He’s also finished outside the top 15 in GIR in five of the last six Masters.
Granted, not every player needs to be lights-out with their irons to make a run at Augusta. Patrick Reed hit just two-thirds of his greens last season, but was extremely efficient in getting up-and-down. But Reed, ever the outlier, is the exception to the rule. Adam Scott led the field in GIR during his 2013 victory, Sergio Garcia (’17) and Jordan Spieth (’15) ranked second in their wins, Bubba Watson T-4 (’12) and T-5 (’14), and Danny Willett (’16) coming in T-6.
The writing is on the wall: For Woods to fire up a weekend run, his irons will need to light the way.
Par 5 fits
Par 5s used to be automatic red figures for Woods, and with reason. Before Augusta National went through its “Tiger-proofing,” Woods would often have short irons or wedges into the greens … with his second shot. Here’s Woods giving a breakdown for Masters.com in 2016 about his former strategy for Augusta’s par 5s:
No. 2: “I remember hitting driver and 8-iron, 9-iron or wedge to the green.”
No. 8: “Minus the wind longer hitters can certainly get there with a good drive and fairway wood—maybe even a hybrid or long iron.”
No. 13: “I said the tee shot I hit here on Sunday in 2001 was my best shot that year and it was—I totally bombed that one and was able to hit 8-iron in.”
No. 15: “I hit a driver and a pitching wedge (in ’97), then made an eagle on my way to a second-nine 30 that helped propel me to my first green jacket.“
The 15th was particularly profitable for Woods, who flaunted a three-under average for the week in his first nine starts as a pro. That essentially worked out to Woods gaining half a stroke on the field every round. The second was similarly productive with Woods turning the downhill sidewinder into a par 4 1/2 during that span, gaining a stroke a tournament on the field.
But those advantages are no more.
In his last 10 appearances, Woods has played the 15th a stroke worse per event than his first previous nine starts. This drop-off is mirrored on No. 2, losing 1.2 strokes. That may not seem dramatic, yet it’s amplified that the field’s scoring has improved (by roughly 0.2 strokes) in that timeframe. It’s subtle, yes, but subtle enough where Woods has gone from a par-5 savant to squarely in the middle of the pack.
Oddly, this isn’t an echo of Woods’ regular-season performance. In the years he had enough rounds to qualify, Woods ranked inside the top six in par-5 scoring on tour every season but one (2018’s comeback campaign, where he ranked 24th). So what’s been daggering Woods?
Mainly, it’s been his own undoing with the driver. Despite its reputation for being wide open off the tee, there remains an onus in keeping the ball in play at Augusta. Woods was never known for precision in his prime, but he still ranked in the top 30 in accuracy at the Masters in seven of his first nine tournaments. He’s done that just once in his last 10 tournaments, with an average rank of 46th in his past seven tries.
Erratic driving has been especially problematic on the par 5s. After hitting 30 of 36 fairways in his first nine starts, Woods’ struggled to keep his ball in the short stuff on the second, finding the fairway just 20 of his next 40 drives. Augusta National’s second cut is far from a nightmare, yet it hampered Tiger’s ability to go low, hitting the green in regulation 77 percent of the time (lousy for a reachable par 5) versus 94.4 percent of the time in his first nine tries.
The 15th hasn’t been as parsimonious with birdies, but to make one, hitting it straight is paramount. In his last 40 rounds, Woods has only made four birdies when missing the fairway. In essence, his former springboards haven’t provided a boost.
• • •
Though these items may paint an ominous forecast for Woods, Tiger backers have reasons for optimism. Woods’ tee-to-green game has been stout (sixth in strokes gained) this year and, after an initial scare a month back at Bay Hill, his health appears in good standing heading into Georgia.
No, Woods won’t reach Jack’s Masters prediction, and he can’t right where things went wrong. Nevertheless, while the future Jack envisioned didn’t quite take place, it’s not over, either. And, by avoiding the obstacles above, one that could be especially bright on Masters Sunday.