For a place that has been accused of not keeping up with the times, Augusta National Golf Club always seems to be in motion.
The practice area, which someone once described as the driving range you’d find in heaven, was once a gravel parking lot.
The newest parking lot was once an entire neighborhood. The old media center is now the merchandise center and an underground concession stand.
Year to year, hospitality mansions appear where pine trees once stood.
Tiger Woods notices.
The four-time Masters champion came to Augusta on a scouting mission April 3 and specifically wanted to see some fairly dramatic changes that were made to the par-four fifth hole. The tees were moved back 40 yards, stretching an already demanding hole to 495, while the buried-elephant hump in the middle of the green was softened.
“Every time they make a change, it seems like it’s been there for a hundred years,” Woods said in his formal interview at the Masters on Tuesday. “It just looks exactly like it’s always been here.”
Problematic for Woods is that the alterations aren’t doing him any favors. About to make his 22nd Masters start Thursday, he boasts: “I’ve got a pretty good little library in my head of how to play the course.”
But it’s as if Augusta’s green-jacketed librarians keep re-shelving the books. It has been 14 years since Woods last pulled on the champion’s green jacket, and since his victory in 2005 nearly 200 yards and countless trees have been added to the layout to penalize wayward driving.
With age and injuries, Woods got shorter off the tee and the youngsters started to blow the ball past him. This season, Woods, 43, is averaging 300 yards in driving. That once put him near the top of the power list, but he ranks 44th now.
“I would like to hit it 40, 50 yards past the longest guy out there, and I’ll figure it out from there,” Woods said to laughter.
Curtis Strange, the two-time U.S. Open champion and ESPN commentator, said too much is made of Woods’ less-reliable putting (though that is certainly an issue, with Woods ranking 74th on tour in strokes gained putting this season).
“He’s put a lot of pressure on his putting because he hasn’t driven in the fairway or driven it very well,” Strange said.
“Tiger’s M.O. has always been that way, in my opinion. When he played his best golf, he drove in the fairway; not only drove it in the fairway, but drove it longer than anyone else.”
Something else would help Woods: a confidence-building start. In his return to Augusta last year after missing two straight Masters, he opened 73-75 and tied for 32nd. He hasn’t stood in the top 10 going into the weekend in nine years. His best finish in the last seven years is a tie for fourth in 2013.
Surprising to Woods is this stat offered to him: The 13 players who have won the Masters since his last victory have been in the top 10 following the first round.
That hasn’t been Woods’ style at Augusta. Only four times has he opened in the top 10. He was 33rd in 2005 after starting with a 74 and ended up beating Chris DiMarco in a playoff.
“I think this is one of the courses that you can make up a lot of ground,” Woods said. “You can get on one of these hot rounds and make up some shots, like I did in ’05 against Chris. I got on a nice little run, made seven [birdies] in a row, and the next thing you know I’m in the lead.
Woods enters this Masters not playing as sharply as he was a year ago, when he’d posted two top-fives on the Florida swing. He has played in five tournaments in 2019, with a top finish of a tie for 10th at the WGC-Mexico Championship.
Getting enough practice time remains an issue. Woods was forced to withdraw from the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March with a stiff neck that he said is a byproduct of his spinal fusion surgery.
“I just can’t log in the time that I used to and that goes with every part of my game,” Woods said. “I can’t work on every single part of my game every day, I have to pick different parts of my game to work on, and that’s the challenge I now face going forward.
“I’ve worked on my putting, and when I have, I’ve putted well,” he added. “If I worked on my short game, I’ve chipped it well. You know, I just can’t do all things all the time anymore.”
There was some confidence gleaned from reaching the quarterfinals two weeks ago in the WGC-Dell Match Play, which included a victory over Rory McIlroy. It didn’t hurt that Woods reportedly scored a smooth seven-under 65 in that recent Augusta reconnaissance mission.
More importantly, however, is the wire-to-wire victory — No. 80 on the tour — Woods pulled off in last September’s Tour Championship. It followed close calls in the British Open and PGA Championship.
“I just feel like that I’ve improved a lot over the past 12, 14 months,” Woods said. “But more than anything, just proven to myself that I can play at this level again. I’ve worked my way back into one of the players that can win events.”