Last Friday, Tiger Woods announced that he will compete in the Masters, having stirred up the expectations of the golf world by playing a practice round at Augusta National on Tuesday. When he tees it up on Thursday, the four-time Masters champion will be playing his first competitive round of golf since withdrawing from the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in early February.
Virtually every golf commentator has weighed in on Woods’ prospects at Augusta. The consensus: he might not crash and burn with an 82 like he shot in Phoenix in January, but is unlikely to be a factor in the tournament. This, of course, contradicts Woods’ well-known philosophy of golf: he never enters a tournament he doesn’t expect to win. When he decided to take time off after Torrey Pines, Woods was adamant that he would not return to competitive golf until his game was back to his historic standards.
So the question going into Masters week is whether Woods’ game is back to a level where he can expect to compete for his fifth green jacket. We won’t know until Thursday. But, as much as I’m glad to see Woods back in the mix, I am going to go out on limb and predict that he won’t make the cut. Here are five reasons why Woods likely will be packing his clubs into the trunk of his Cadillac Friday evening.
1. Lack of Competitive Golf
As much as Woods has practiced and worked with his new swing consultant, Chris Como, over the past two months, this is no substitute for tournament experience. To leap into the maelstrom of a major championship after such a layoff is a tall order even for Woods, particularly at Augusta National which represents one of the toughest short-game challenges in golf.
True, Woods did finish fourth at Augusta in 2010 after a five-month layoff. But that layoff was attributable to the collapse of his personal life, not to fundamental problems with his golf game and injuries. Woods had an outstanding season in 2009, winning six times. In contrast, he played very little last season, and had back surgery after withdrawing from the PGA Championship.
2. Unresolved Swing Issues
Woods missed the cut at Phoenix in January after shooting an 82, his highest score in a PGA Tour event. It was clear that his work with Como had not jelled, and he seemed to have little control over many of his shots. Como is bio-mechanics expert who presumably is trying to help Woods develop a swing that creates less stress on his fragile body. What remains to be seen is whether this new swing has been sufficiently honed so as to cause less stress to Woods’ scorecards.
3. Short-Game Collapse
At both Phoenix and Torrey Pines, Woods at times displayed a short game more reminiscent of a high-handicapper than the winner of fourteen majors. He bladed a number of pitch shots badly, and it seemed that his chances of getting up and down were about as good as Augusta National chairman Billy Payne opening up Magnolia Lane to the general public.
With its tight lies, slopes, and fast greens, Augusta National presents a supreme challenge to the short game. If Woods has not completely worked out the problems he experienced at Phoenix and Torrey Pines, he could struggle this week.
4. The Yips?
Hank Haney, Woods’ former swing coach, believes that Woods’ short game problems are not solely due to mechanics or lack of playing time. He thinks Woods was suffering from the “yips” earlier this year – that dreaded combination of nerves and psychology that can wreak havoc on a player’s confidence.
If Haney is correct, Woods’ chipping and pitching will be under scrutiny this week to determine whether the yips resurface when he is faced with delicate shots around the green. Will he use his putter or hybrid to compensate, like he did earlier this year? Stay tuned.
5. The Mental Factor
When he is at his best, Tiger Woods is one of the most mentally tough competitors golf has ever seen. In his peak years, his steely demeanor, intense focus, and unwavering confidence intimidated competitors. Of late, some observers have questioned whether Woods is losing his mental edge.
This is difficult to evaluate. It stands to reason that Woods might lose some focus and concentration when struggling with swing problems and injuries. We won’t really be able to gauge Woods’ mental state until we see him in contention on Sunday at a major.
So these are the reasons why I see Tiger missing the cut this week. But I hope he proves me wrong. It would be great to see him wearing that red shirt on Sunday.
Jack Ross is a regular contributor to NEGM.