After an eighth straight Masters had been successfully Tiger-proofed, the world No. 1 was asked where he was “mentally.”
“Mentally, I’m hungry,” Woods said with a smirk on Sunday.
“I always give you that … but, seriously, I’m, like, hungry.”
It’s just like Woods — who does, admittedly, have quite the appetite — to deflect uncomfortable questions with pithy throwaway lines.
But the questions will only grow more uncomfortable in the next seven weeks as Woods approaches an anniversary few would have expected. He will arrive at venerable Merion, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, in June to mark the fifth anniversary of his last major victory, at the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines.
Who would have believed after Woods so heroically won that US Open in a playoff over Rocco Mediate that he would still be stuck on 14 majors five years later?
He had, after all, won six of 14 dating back to his breakthrough in the Hank Haney era, the 2005 Masters. Not quite as good as winning five of six under Butch Harmon, but quite acceptable, even by his stratospheric expectations.
There have been, of course, extenuating circumstances: knee surgery in 2008, the tabloid scandal of 2009, divorce in 2010, embarking on yet another swing change and more injuries in 2011.
But those setbacks don’t explain everything. The truth is that Woods hasn’t been able to deliver on the big stage like he once did.
He had the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine in the bag after two rounds before taking his foot off the pedal in the third round, allowing his lead to shrink from four to two. He was made to pay by the pesky Korean Y.E. Yang.
In 2010, he had his chance after a vintage Tiger Saturday at the Pebble Beach US Open, and last year he faded on the weekends after strong starts at three majors.
Conventional thinking says Merion’s hardly Woods’ best chance for No. 15.
It’s the most claustrophobic of venues — so short by modern standards that the last of its five US Opens came in 1981 — and has only two par-5 holes.
Woods historically hasn’t done well on courses where accuracy off the tee is at a premium or on layouts where par is 70, depriving him of two par 5s that let him capitalize on his length.
That said, there’s no reason Woods can’t win at Merion.
At his best, he is the finest iron player in the game and among the best around the greens, so with five drive-able par-4 holes, he will have plenty of birdie chances.
Remember, too, that Woods can scale back when he needs to: The last time he won at Medinah — the 2006 PGA Championship — he hit 5 wood off most tees. He won a British Open at Royal Liverpool that same year hitting driver only once all week, relying instead on long irons to position himself in the fairways.
In 2007, Woods won the PGA at Southern Hills also rarely using driver.
So even if a course doesn’t suit him in the way Torrey Pines, Doral or Bay Hill do, he can still get it done.
“It’s one week, and you just have to figure it out,” he said last week. “You know, one of the courses was Tulsa (Southern Hills). That didn’t quite fit my eye, but I ended up winning. Hoylake wasn’t a golf course that really fit my eye, but I won there, as well.”
The difference back then, though, was that he was accustomed to winning majors. And that’s the bridge he needs to cross now: remembering how to win them.
Never was that more clear than at Augusta, which just isn’t the home course it used to be for Woods.
Jack Nicklaus once predicted Woods would win more green jackets than he and Arnold Palmer combined. That would be at least 11.
And that’s not going to happen.
Since the course was Tiger-proofed in 2006, Woods has been stuck on four green jackets. Tiger-proofing has worked because Woods’ length has largely been negated. And while it’s true he doesn’t make the clutch putts there anymore, he also has struggled on the par 5s that used to be his bread and butter.
Since the second hole has been stretched, it demands a draw with the driver. Woods is so uncomfortable with that shot that he’s regularly in the left trees, unable to get to the green in two shots.
It’s unfathomable that Bernhard Langer, who’s going to be 56 years old in August, twice reached the second green in two — making an eagle and a two-putt birdie — yet Woods didn’t manage it once in four rounds, settling for pars each day.
The back nine at Augusta also isn’t a happy hunting ground for him anymore.
He doesn’t like the 11th hole at all. On 13 — because of his fear of the Big Miss to the left, where Rae’s Creek lurks — he struggles to find the fairway.
While much was made of his unluckiness in hitting the flagstick in the second round on 15 — leading to a water ball and a controversial retroactive two stroke penalty — it shouldn’t be forgotten that he was forced to lay up because he couldn’t find one of the wider fairways on the course. Anywhere in the short grass and Woods would have gone for the green with a long iron and Rule 33.7 would have remained an obscurity.
His inability to dominate those two par 5s explains his recent struggles on the inward nine. Consider that in his breakthrough victory at the 1997 Masters, Woods played the back nine in 16 under par. This year, he was just 1 under par, seven shots worse than champion Adam Scott.
It stands to reason that the run to Jack Nicklaus’ major mark of 18 is made more difficult given that the Masters isn’t what it used to be for Woods.
But, as is his wont, he’s not sweating it.
“We have very expansive careers, and I feel like I’m basically right in the middle of mine,” he said last week. “I have a lot of good years ahead of me.”