Augusta is made for Woods. His combination of length, high, soft-landing iron shots and delicate touch around the greens are the classic building blocks for Masters victories. More than any other course, Augusta National rewards "talent shots," the kind only a minority of the players blessed with power and excellent technique can pull off, and Woods has more talent than anyone else. After finishing his first Masters in 1995, the then 19-year-old sat in the Crow's Nest and said, "This place is perfect for me." And when Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer predicted, after playing a practice round with Woods last year, that he would win more than the 10 green jackets they have accumulated, Woods was flattered but unfazed. "It's a great compliment," he said. "Obviously, I want to do that anyway."
Woods's caddie, Mike (Fluff) Cowan, has been around long enough to know the danger of predictions, but even he can't resist a qualified one. "Expectations are never good for a golfer," says Cowan, "but if Tiger can play well—not necessarily super—he's going to take that place apart." In other words, the scoring record of 271, shared by Nicklaus and Ray Floyd, might be in jeopardy.
That's particularly true if Woods can employ the lessons he has learned at Augusta. In practice rounds, he has benefited from the advice of former champions such as Fred Couples, Floyd, Nicklaus and Palmer. Woods frequently watches tapes of old Masters, often using the library at the Golf Channel, which is near his home in Orlando, to observe the strategy of past winners, particularly Nicklaus. "Basically, what Jack did was play to the safe side on the par-3s and par-4s, make a bunch of tap-in pars, then kill the par-5s," Woods says. "That's the way I want to play. It's such a deceptive course. It looks wide open, but it's really got a pretty narrow route if you want to get a good angle at the pin. That's what Faldo is so good at. And if you want to get your irons close, you usually have to land them away from the pins and on these tiny spots. Naturally, I learned all this the hard way."
Woods has never broken par at Augusta in six official rounds. Last year, in fact, when he was widely touted as a dark horse, he shot 75-75 and missed the cut. Two things were his undoing. First, Woods's academic workload at Stanford didn't allow him to prepare for the event in the single-minded way he prefers. Second, Woods was in the midst of making a swing change that was not quite ready for prime time. Though he averaged an amazing 342 yards off the tee and hit 26 of 28 fairways, erratic iron play—he consistently missed his target long and to the left—caused him to hit only 21 of 36 greens in regulation. In retrospect, he was very close to getting his game together. Shortly after Augusta, he won the Pac-10 championship at Big Canyon Country Club in Newport Beach, Calif., on the strength of a day when he shot 61-65, which he considers the best golf he has ever played. Two weeks later he won the NCAA championship. Woods says that if his swing had kicked in two weeks earlier, he would have contended at the Masters.
Woods's putting style has also been a problem at Augusta. As befits his youth, he has a habit of underreading putts and then hitting them hard to negate the break. When he misses, he often has a long comebacker. On Augusta's ultrafast greens, that style invites killing three-putts, and avoiding them is another key to winning. Last year Faldo had only one three-putt, one more than Ben Crenshaw had in '95 and Olazábal had in '94. Woods is aware of his tendency to miss comeback putts (he three-putted three greens during the final round while winning at Las Vegas last October) and has adjusted his style. After studying the fluid method Brad Faxon, Woods has lightened his grip pressure to have better feel for distance and is playing for more break so that his putts the at the cup.
But Woods's biggest obstacle, long and short term, is the new pressures in his life. After turning pro, Woods played off the momentum, confidence and joy of his Amateur victory. Now commerce, expectations and scrutiny have crowded in and hurt his ability to perform.
For the most part Woods has adjusted successfully to the hordes of autograph seekers that surround him before and after rounds, the extra security he has needed since receiving death threats earlier this year, the higher standard of behavior he is held to as golf's most watched superstar and the sometimes lonely existence his celebrity forces him to lead. But Woods has also had to deal with some unforeseen and traumatic situations. The first was the firing last October of his personal attorney, John Merchant, a family friend, primarily because of a conflict between the interests of the Tiger Woods Foundation and the National Minority Golf Foundation, which was headed by Merchant. The second came when Woods's 64-year-old father suffered a heart attack while Tiger was playing in the Tour Championship in Tulsa. The attack led to the bypass operation. The third blow was the cover story in the April issue of GQ magazine, in which Woods is quoted using profanity and telling off-color jokes. Woods saw the story two weeks ago, before the second round of the Bay Hill Invitational, where after opening with a 68 he faded to a tie for ninth.
"That article created a deep hurt," says Earl Woods, 'in my opinion he lost his swing because of it. It disillusioned him and stayed with him awhile because he realized that he had misjudged a situation. He thought, How could I have been so stupid?"
But the elder Woods isn't worried that the cumulative effect of the changes in his son's life will change his love for golf or his goal of becoming the game's greatest player. "It's going to be all right," Earl says. "Tiger hasn't lost his idealism or his enthusiasm. He's not turning from a positive into a negative person. That would be a complete rejection of his whole personality and purpose. Yes, he's got some scar tissue and he's gotten harder, but he needs to grow. As he says to me, 'Dad, I'm getting so damn tough.' He realizes better than anyone that this is his life now and that he has to accept what comes with it. No way has he lost sight of what he wants to accomplish."
Elkington, who with two victories this season, at the Players and Doral, is the Tour's hottest player and also a threat in the Masters, agrees. "As far as talent and potential, Tiger is the best I've ever seen," says Elkington. "But what's best about him is that when there is chaos all around him, he can concentrate and perform."