Woods’ Mastery of Augusta Isn’t Quite the Same

On Thursday at Augusta National Golf Course, Tiger Woods carded a 70 for the first round for the fifth time in his career. Three of the other four times Tiger shot a 70 in the opening round, he went on to win the tournament.

I think Woods has a good chance to take this one, although if you gave me a bet of Woods vs. the field, I would take the field. I heard Johnny Miller say that there are 10 times as many golfers who can win the Masters now as there were when Woods won it previously. It might not be that many more, but there are more guys capable of winning now than then.

Changes in the course, changes in Tiger’s game, and a bunch of those kids who were 12, 13 and 14 years old and were motivated to play the sport by Woods himself have changed the landscape for him. What seemed easy in 2005 no longer is, so Tiger will have to play incredible golf to win.

The big problems for Woods on the course are at holes seven and 11. The course was lengthened overall by about 500 yards, and the par-4 seventh was increased by 40 yards. Augusta National made the fairway, as ESPN’s Mike Tirico called it, claustrophobic with the addition of trees on both sides. For a long time, Tiger continued to hit driver on that hole, but his driver is at best erratic. While Tiger used to have numerous landing spots on the seventh, now he has to hit it down the middle. It hasn’t been until recently that Woods tried to become more accurate and give up a few yards by leaving his driver in the bag.

In round one, Tiger opened the tournament with a three-wood. He finally has appeared to reach the understanding that he doesn’t have to bomb a drive and then use a wedge on par 5’s. There are times to be aggressive and go for the eagle, but sometimes the best thing to do is just take your birdie and move on.

Before the great innovations in golf equipment, according to his former coach Hank Haney in the book “The Big Miss,” Tiger could hit a beautiful draw with his driver, but he lost the ability to do that with the bigger driver head. Then, in 2006, Augusta added trees to the right side of the 11th hole. Because the draw was gone, Woods could still hit the ball right into a massive landing area that would set up a relatively easy second shot. But with no draw and his driver consistently going right, Tiger regularly hit drives at number 11 into the new trees. As was noted this week in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Woods chewed up and spit out 7 and 11 during his initial nine-year reign. In the four years that he won the tournament, he was under par for the week on those holes six times and never over par. For nine years, he bettered par on them 22 times.

“After the changes, Woods has birdied each hole just once and made an eagle on 7 in 2010. He has recorded over-par averages on one hole or the other nine times in the past seven years. That’s compared with only five times the previous nine years.”

So, we can actually attach numbers to the changes in Woods’ game, and the changes at Augusta National, and see how it has affected him.

The other big change is in the competition. The last time Tiger won the Masters, in 2005, he and Chris DiMarco went to a playoff at 12-under par. Only two other golfers reached five-under for the tournament. In Tiger’s first win in 1997, he was one of three who were at least 5-under. Last year, seven golfers were at least 5-under – as opposed to four in 2005. Two years ago, as Tiger finished fourth, 14 golfers finished at least five-under, led by Charl Schwartzel’s 14-under. In 2010, there were 11 who were at least 5-under. There are many more golfers capable of winning the championship now than there were in Tiger’s prime a decade ago.

Finally, Tiger’s aura isn’t what it was. It used to be that if he went into a Sunday with a lead, he was a lock to win the tournament. He’s still 52-4, including 14-1 in majors, but these young players aren’t intimidated. Even if Tiger has a one-shot lead over someone like Dustin or Zach Johnson, Trevor Immelman or even Ricky Fowler, they’ll play their own game on Sunday and can certainly win.

It’ll be great for golf if Tiger Woods wins this weekend, and his game right now is great. I’ll be interested to see if he can overcome all the obstacles put in front of him by the golf world and win his fifth green jacket.