AUGUSTA • The most mesmerising moment of Tiger Woods’ seismic 2019 Masters victory featured the intimidating stillness of a silent stare.
Standing defiantly on the 12th green with arms folded across his chest during the final round, the American glared pitilessly at his closest rivals.
Seconds earlier, he had shrewdly and conservatively traversed the tiny yet treacherous creek protecting the pivotal green, safely positioning his golf ball 30 feet from the hole.
With an air of condescension, Woods walked alone up to the plateau green and, from the opposite side of the creek, looked down on playing partners Francisco Molinari and Tony Finau as they dolefully dropped new golf balls – futile first steps in an unsuccessful rally.
By the time the players left the green, Woods was tied for the lead and on his way to a stunning victory.
Want to know if Woods, even after 19 erratic months, can retain his Masters title this week? The answer is in his knowing stare during the crucible of last year’s tournament.
“It was a pure Tiger power moment,” Trevor Immelman, the 2008 Masters champion, said last month, recalling the scene.
“It was the perfect example of how he uses his vast Masters experience.
“Tiger went to the green and looked back just to say, ‘I may be 43 years old, but I’m still the man around here’.”
Savvier about the secrets to succeeding at Augusta National Golf Club than any other player in this year’s field, Woods has not only won the Masters five times, he has finished in the top five seven other times in his 22 tournament appearances.
Even when his game is not sharp or when he competes after a long lay-off – or both – Woods has usually managed to contend at Augusta National.
It was a pure Tiger power moment. It was the perfect example of how he uses his vast Masters experience. Tiger went to the green and looked back just to say, ‘I may be 43 years old, but I’m still the man around here’.
He loves and knows Augusta so well, and that triggers very positive vibes. It’s that kind of place, and Tiger has 25 years of memories to draw from.
There is no better example than the 2010 Masters, when Woods returned from a five-month exile necessitated by the scandal of his marital infidelities.
Despite stinging rebukes from fans and from the Augusta National chair at the time, Billy Payne, Woods stayed in the hunt until the final holes, finishing tied for fourth.
“I would never count Tiger Woods out at the Masters because he loves and knows Augusta so well, and that triggers very positive vibes,” said Bernhard Langer, who has won the Masters twice and tied for eighth at the tournament in 2014, when he was 56.
“It’s that kind of place, and Tiger has 25 years of memories to draw from.”
But in a sports year different from any other in modern times, Woods has been a far less daunting presence because of his balky lower back, which has been surgically repaired four times.
Playing infrequently, he has turned in several sparkling rounds when his swing was fluid and his movements supple.
But it has been just as common to see him limping 24 hours later, with one hand pressed against a back warped by reshaped bone and scarred tissue, toiling fruitlessly in pain.
In July, after one such uneven performance in consecutive rounds of the Memorial Tournament, Woods explained the hour-by-hour unpredictability of his back.
That morning, he felt limber when he woke up, but a few hours later was too stiff to take a full golf swing. “It’s going to happen more times than not,” he said, smiling.
This is his new reality, which includes the understanding that if he is going to win the three more Majors needed to tie Jack Nicklaus’ record total of 18, or match Nicklaus’ record six Masters titles, it will probably have to happen in the next few years.
With the clock ticking this season, Woods has struggled. In the six tournaments he has entered since the PGA Tour resumed in June after a three-month layoff caused by the coronavirus pandemic, he has not finished higher than a tie for 37th.
In the five Majors he has played since his 2019 Masters victory, he has missed the cut three times, tied for 21st and tied for 37th.
Nonetheless, his younger colleagues on the PGA Tour, as well as his contemporaries in the champions-only Augusta National locker room, uniformly consider him among the favourites this week and so do online betting sites.
“The whole world saw what Tiger did in the final round last year when he methodically chased down every name ahead of him on the leaderboard,” said 36-year-old Gary Woodland, the 2019 US Open champion.
“It was proof of his talent but also showed the depth of his invaluable experience on that golf course.”
Woods will have one less challenger in the field after 2017 Masters champion Sergio Garcia on Monday withdrew from the final Major of the year after testing positive for Covid-19.
The Spaniard, who revealed he developed symptoms following his missed cut at last Sunday’s Houston Open, tweeted: “After 21 years of not missing a Major Championship, I will sadly miss The Masters this week.
“The important thing is that my family and I are feeling good. We’ll come back stronger and give the green jacket a go next April.”