Augusta, GA—The announcement Friday by Tiger Woods stating he would be returning to competition at this year’s Masters raises the stakes for the winner of 14 major events. When last seen at Torrey Pines just outside of San Diego, Woods was thoroughly lost—confidence shaken—with no real discernible plan to resurrect his one time formidable golf game.
Woods missed last year’s Masters because of an injury rehab and it was totally unclear whether he would return to the caldron of intense scrutiny by making Augusta National his return visit without any warm-up events. After two practice rounds at Augusta National a week before this event, Woods has opted to compete.
Given his recent track record—with either missed cuts or pulling out prematurely from events citing injury of one sort or another—it’s hard to envision Woods being in the mix for serious contention for his fifth green jacket. It’s now been 13 years since his last Masters triumph. If anyone envisioned such a drought in an event tailor-made for Woods they likely would have been laughed out of the room. Nonetheless, having Tiger back at Augusta makes this year’s Masters even more fascinating given the standing and fanfare only Woods can create.
What are the keys for Tiger at the first major for 2015?
* Becoming relevant again. For much of his career Tiger was the crucial center point. His last PGA Tour victory came in August 2013 and given how little he has done since then Woods needs to show people he still matters. Finishing what he starts would be a major first step in doing just that. Getting off to a good start on Thursday is more essential than at any previous time in his Masters career.
* Is the breakdowns with his short game finally resolved? When Tiger played in Scottsdale and in San Diego his short game completely fell apart. Tiger Woods excelled beyond all others in the short game and putting areas. Tackling Augusta National with its sweeping and speedy putting surfaces will test Woods to the maximum. When deciding to enter the pool, Tiger has taken a big-time dive that he can handle the deep end of the pool—because Augusta doesn’t have a kiddie-section.
* Can Tiger finally resolve the dreaded two-way miss with his driver? Early in his career, the driver was a club that propelled Woods miles beyond his competition. He married both length and uncanny accuracy. For the 39-year-old Woods, today he is routinely outdriven by the longest of hitters and his lack of accuracy has only placed even more of a burden on his short game. Augusta calls upon a controlled draw — a ball flight for right-handed players such as Tiger to work shots from right-to-left. Being able to successfully control the driver is central to being able to take advantage of clear opportunities Augusta provides when players reach optimum locations in the fairway. If Woods simply returns to the playing of “army golf” off the tee—left, right, left—then in all probability he will be heading back home Friday afternoon.
* Is the passion still there? Golf is a humbling game and Woods was clearly embarrassed by his amateurish play earlier this year. Woods indicated he would not return to competition until he believed his game was ready to play at the highest of levels. At Augusta, Woods will certainly find the ultimate litmus test—seeing if what Tiger believes and what Tiger is capable in accomplishing is joined together or hopelessly split apart. Passion cannot be bought at the nearest store—it is fundamental to one’s core. This year’s Masters could signal either a rebirth for Woods or a path to final retirement from competition.
* Getting the vibe from competition. When playing his best golf Woods was clearly attuned to the back and forth of competitive situations. He lived for those moments. His game rose beyond what any other golfer could even contemplate. Like learning to ride a bicycle, Woods needs to feel the energy that comes from the moment and allow himself to return to where he shined beyond all others. The negative forces Woods have clouded him, taking him to a level far lower than he has ever been when competing. Should that vibe return, those competing against him will once again see the eye of the Tiger.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.