As surely as birds chirp, azaleas bloom and CBS announcers swoon over the beauty of Augusta National, by sundown on the second Sunday in April, Tiger will have his fifth green jacket and his 15th major championship.
This isn’t an original observation. Before Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player shuffle out to the tee for the ceremonial first shots, every pundit with a passing knowledge of the game will have picked Tiger.
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But there is a reason for that, and it isn’t bandwagon jumping. The guy is better than every other player in the world again. And he is better in ways that are suited for the Masters.
Last April, Tiger won at Bay Hill and arrived at Augusta like Caesar entering the gates of Rome. But not everybody was sold. He still didn’t have the new golf swing dialed in, and his short-iron distances were an unsolved mystery. One 9-iron shot would fly 140 yards and the next would soar 180. He won at Bay Hill playing defense, fighting the big miss with knock-downs and hold-offs, and making crucial putts at critical times.
This year is different. Tiger has won three times before April 1 — a feat he last accomplished in 2008, the last year he won a major — and he has done so in a fashion reminiscent of his most dominant days on tour. His golf swing is as good as it’s been in years, and he seems confident and committed every time he makes a backswing.
That’s not why he’s going to win, though. He still misses fairways left and right, sometimes blasting drives so far afield that even the throng of spectators can’t find them. And while he is still plenty long, he isn’t the longest hitter in the game anymore. In fact, on any given week he might not rank in the top five.
No, the reason Tiger will win the Masters is not his drives or his swing or his commitment or confidence. He is going to win because he is putting better than he ever has in his life, which might be better than anyone ever has in history.
At Bay Hill, he ranked No.1 in putting for the week, and in the top 10 percent in saves. He also finished in the bottom 10 percent in fairways hit and was in the bottom half of the field in greens hit in regulation. But he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational without breaking a sweat because he missed one putt all week from inside 10 feet.
Two weeks prior, in the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, he finished the week with 100 putts and 27 birdies. As if those numbers weren’t impressive enough, Tiger didn’t miss any putts inside 10 feet. He went 33-0.
Nobody does that, not even in a casual round with your buddies, much less on lightning-fast, brick-hard greens with thousands of fans watching and millions of dollars on the line.
These were not wobbly rolls that caught all the edges and fell in. At Bay Hill the only bad putt he hit all week was a 25-footer at 13 on Sunday that he left 8 feet short. Then, just as it looked like he might become human again, he hit the 8-footer in the center of the hole as if it were a tap-in.
Because he is putting so well, he doesn’t have to hit 5-irons at the flags from bad lies in the rough. He can play the percentages, knowing that any shot on the green gives him a chance at birdie.
That is why he will win the Masters.
He can drive the ball anywhere at Augusta National. The rough (or “second cut” at the green jacket crowd calls it) is shorter than the average public course’s fairways. And the fairways themselves provide ample room. That means Tiger can freewheel off the tee, knowing that his good drives will put him perfect spots to attack, and his not-so-perfect ones won’t hurt him.
Yes, Tiger is going to win. As surely as the sun rises in the east and the grass at Augusta National is green, the No.1 player in the world will take one more step toward becoming the greatest player of all time.
When he does, he should give a shout-out to Steve Stricker, the man who gave him a putting lesson the Wednesday before the opening round at Doral. Stricker, long known as one of the best putters in the game, had Tiger square his shoulders to the line and move his hands a little higher to align the putter face.
The results of that lesson speak for themselves.
Of course, Tiger won’t give Stricker his due. Just as surely as the sun will set in the west the Sunday after the Masters, Tiger will bask in the glory of his latest accomplishment with a Cheshire cat smile and a shark’s soulless eyes, acknowledging everyone but thanking no one.