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ONE OF THE first putting lessons Tiger Woods ever received at Augusta National Golf Club included a pack of Marlboro Lights. The year was 1996, and as he prepared for his second appearance at the Masters, Woods was playing a practice round alongside Ben Crenshaw, the defending champion. Crenshaw's caddie, Carl Jackson, liked to keep cigarettes in his bib for such occasions.
"I would always throw down the pack to suggest where a certain pin would be," says Jackson, who first caddied at the Masters in 1961. "I'd suggest that Ben try certain putts, and then Tiger would follow. Tiger followed Ben on every one of those greens."
Woods missed the cut but took another step in his growth on the most beguiling greens in the world. "Before he left, I could tell he was in a hurry, but he found me just to say thank you," Jackson recalls. Woods then told him something else: "Those pins were exactly where you said they were going to be." The following year Woods won the Masters by a tournament-record 12 strokes.
Woods has never stopped learning—about reading greens, the dynamics of his swing or the mechanics of his putting stroke—and that thirst for improvement has carried him through dominant stretches, dry patches and every level in between. After an 8½-month layoff following left knee surgery, Woods returned to competition in February with a balky putting stroke. So before he teed it up at last week's Arnold Palmer Invitational, he revisited some of the putting basics he'd been taught as a child by his late father, Earl.
This was the equivalent of a master artist digging through his earliest drawings, and the results were undeniable. Woods unleashed a putter so pure in his victory at Bay Hill that the time that had passed since his last win, at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines last June, seemed to vanish into the dusk. He led the field in putting and rallied from five shots back in the final round to match his largest comeback on the PGA Tour. He made a remarkable sand save at 14 to stay within a shot of leader Sean O'Hair, caught him with a 26-foot birdie putt at 15, got up and down from 109 yards to seize the outright lead on the next, and, after a rare mistake at 17, dropped a 16-foot birdie putt at the 18th for the victory. Not bad for a guy making only his third start since the layoff.
Woods is no longer a convalescing golfer, but one with major appointments to keep: the Masters, where he has four wins; the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, where he won in 2002; the British Open at Turnberry, a links course that demands the precision he thrives on; and the PGA Championship at Hazeltine, where he finished second in '02.
After more than a decade of chasing and breaking records, the arithmetic for Woods comes down to this. If he peaks during those four weeks, he could tie Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 professional majors—Woods's holy grail—and at the same time match the Grand Slam that Bobby Jones claimed 79 years ago. The hazards are many, and the competition on the Tour may be the deepest Woods has ever faced. The math, however, is right.
"I think it's a big ask," says Rod Pampling, a two-time Tour winner. "It's one of those deals like the Triple Crown. Even if you have the favorite horse, it's still no guarantee. And they only have 12 horses to run against. Tiger has 100."
Woods has come close to a Grand Slam before, streaking to four straight majors during the 2000 and '01 seasons, but the golf world is more complicated now. Padraig Harrington has won the last two majors and three of the last six. Phil Mickelson and Geoff Ogilvy have two victories apiece this season.
Charles Howell, Woods's friend, neighbor and occasional playing partner, was recently handicapping the Masters when the subject of the winner came up. One reporter picked Mickelson. Howell's eyes grew wide.