Masters Just Around Amen Corner

Phil Mickelson has talked openly and often about the feeling that comes over him each April when he turns off Washington Road and drives down Magnolia Lane toward Augusta National’s white clubhouse. “There’s something very spiritual about playing Augusta if you love the game as much as I do and going there gets me fired up,” Mickelson said last month after a pre-Masters trip to Augusta National with buddy Keegan Bradley. He’s not the only one who feels it. Not everyone may express it the way Mickelson does, practically making it contagious, but it’s there for all but the hardest hearted. Whether you’re driving beneath the magnolia archway that frames the club driveway, walking in through one of the patron entryways or you’re perched in front of a television set anywhere between Augusta and Anchorage, The Masters matters like no other tournament. It’s because of Amen Corner and the azaleas, Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, Sarazen’s double-eagle and Tiger’s chip-in. It’s because there have been eight months since the last major championship, requiring a winter’s worth of waiting and wondering whose turn it will be this time. The two Opens and the PGA Championship have their own stature and identity but they lack the nature of The Masters. The U.S. Open can be a slog, the Open Championship a wet, windswept endurance test and the PGA a four-day walk through a blast furnace. The Masters is possibility and promise, all wrapped in a wisteria bow. Still a week away, this Masters hints again at renewal, not just for the fried chicken sandwich that has been returned to the patrons’ lunch menu but also for Tiger Woods. It has been eight years since Woods ground out an extra-hole victory over Chris DiMarco to win his fourth green jacket. Just 29, it still felt as if Tiger was just getting started despite all he had done. Now we know better. It has been nearly five years since that remember-where-you-were moment when Tiger willed that bumpy, 15-foot putt into the hole at Torrey Pines, forcing a U.S. Open playoff he would win the next day over Rocco Mediate. The major championship count, which seemed to continually click upward like an altimeter, stalled at 14. Woods is 37 now, with a different swing and a different life, but a familiar glow has returned to his golf game. He has won three times this year, six times over the past 13 months. He’s not the old Tiger but he has begun to dominate events the way he did a decade ago. He may never regain the intimidation factor he wore like fingerprints but the generation of players that has emerged over the past three years – from Rory McIlroy to Rickie Fowler – is getting a dose of Tiger like it hadn’t seen. McIlroy has embraced it more comfortably than he wrapped his arms around his life at No. 1 and, in turn, Woods has embraced McIlroy. That itself is different, almost as surprising as Woods releasing photographs of himself with new girlfriend Lindsey Vonn. Woods has never been warm and fuzzy but he seems softer around the edges recently. This is a critical Masters for Woods for two reasons: because it has been five years since his last major championship victory and because there’s a sense his reborn game has been pointed for months to next week. It’s the last golf step for the renewed and restored Tiger. Though he isn’t prone to public introspection, it’s safe to assume that it’s the one remaining leap he wants to make. For all that has changed, chasing down Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 professional major championship victories has not. It remains the fire in Woods’ furnace. It’s almost remarkable that at this point in his career – 37 years old with 60 professional starts and 14 victories in major championships – Tiger’s numbers are exactly the same as Nicklaus’ at the same age. We know what Jack did from here, winning at St. Andrews in 1978, picking up two majors after reworking his swing in 1980 and – cue the angels choir – the 1986 Masters. What we don’t know is where Tiger goes from here. It was easy a year or two ago to think we’d seen all that Tiger had. His body betrayed him. His confidence eroded. His aura was diminished. But as another Masters comes around, bringing with it a slow-arriving spring, it brings McIlroy and Mickelson, Watson and Westwood, dogwood blossoms and dominance in the air. It brings Tiger another chance. Except for last year, when he tied for 40th, Woods hasn’t finished outside the top six at Augusta since 2004. He prowls the property like Nicklaus did. Asked after his victory at Bay Hill when he last felt as good about his game going to Augusta as he feels this year, Woods chose not to expound on his confidence. “It’s been a few years,” he said. That says enough.


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