In 1996, Jack Nicklaus boldly declared that Tiger Woods would win more green jackets than he and Arnold Palmer combined.
At least 11 green jackets out of a skinny amateur who’d miss the cut at that year’s Masters seemed back then to be, well, quite a stretch.
But it was less so the following year, when Woods obliterated records in running away with his first Masters. And by 2002, when a 26-year-old Woods had claimed his third green jacket, the Golden Bear appeared quite the sage.
But since, Woods has won only one more Masters, in 2005, and even that was a fortuitous playoff victory over Chris DiMarco. So, what’s gone wrong?
Steve Williams, who’s been on Woods’ bag since 1999 and will caddy in his 25th straight Masters this week, doesn’t hesitate when I put the question to him last week.
“It’s quite simple. Tiger just hasn’t putted well over four rounds there in a number of years,” Williams said from his farm in New Zealand.
“That’s what it boils down to. Augusta comes down to the greens. It doesn’t really matter how you strike it. If you’re holing putts, you’ve got a chance there, and Tiger hasn’t putted consistently well for several years.”
To his point, Woods didn’t three-putt once in 1997 and took only 116 total putts. Since 2002, however, he’s had 22 three-putts — at least one every tournament — and three times has taken more than 120 putts — significant given the narrow margins that have separated him from the winners.
Woods has acknowledged that his putting in recent years has been “streaky” and conceded that he’d taken that aspect of his game for granted. Williams, though, sees evidence that his man’s putting is coming around.
“At Bay Hill (two weeks ago) we saw a real improvement in his putting,” he said.
Although Woods is in the midst of the longest drought of his career at Augusta, Williams said he should never be written off.
“When you say he hasn’t been winning, it’s not like he’s missing the cut or finishing dead last. He‘s been in contention pretty much every year,” he said.
Indeed, Woods has not finished outside the top six since 2004.
“Tiger loves the course,” Williams says. “He lifts his game every year when he comes there and last year showcased that. He doesn’t play a tournament in five months and shows up at Augusta and finishes fourth. That tells you a lot because that just doesn’t happen out here.”
Williams thinks Woods will contend for a fifth green jacket, though he concedes he could be a little underdone.
“In an ideal world, we’d have had one more tournament under our belts before the Masters,” he said. “But that’s in an ideal world. If you ask me is he ready, I’d say that I like what I’m seeing.”
Although Woods finished in a tie for 24th at Bay Hill two weeks ago, Williams saw much more from that performance.
“His score didn’t indicate how well he played at Bay Hill,” he said. “Every mistake he made, he was made to pay a high penalty for. He was behind and started firing at pins you wouldn’t normally go for and hit three (balls) in the water.
“I thought it was his best performance of the year. There are lots of daunting shots at Bay Hill and they’ll expose you if you’re not on your game, and he had the confidence to take them on.”
Williams was especially buoyant about Woods’ long game, particularly the re-emergence of the kind of high, soft long irons that separated Woods in his prime.
“A couple of months ago, there’s no way he hits those shots,” Williams said. “He didn’t have the confidence to hit them. But those shots at Bay Hill were as high and as good as you could hit it. That‘s a very positive sign.”
Not coincidentally, those are the shots Augusta National demands. Williams says Woods has an advantage at the Masters because he understands the nuances of the course.
“More so than any other course, the more times you play it, the more you understand how to play it,” he said. “It takes a long time to realize the way the wind blows around Amen Corner. It’s the only place I’ve ever seen where you look at the flag and it’s not an indication of where the wind’s going. It’s a place where you absolutely have to know where to miss it, or I should say, where not to miss it, and Tiger knows that.”
Playing the course can get so tricky that even after 24 years, Williams acknowledges he still gets surprised from time to time.
“Maybe not so much anymore about the course, but you know when you go out there on Thursday that they’ll throw a trick or two at you,” he said. “Maybe they’ll leave the second cut long for the practice rounds and then they’ll shave it Thursday morning. It’s always something. You’ve really got to tip-toe your way around the course on Thursdays.”
If Williams is concerned about Woods, who hasn’t won anywhere since late 2009, he wasn’t betraying it.
“Worried?” he repeated. “I never worry about Tiger going into a major, especially this one.”