ONE OF THE firstputting lessons Tiger Woods ever received at Augusta National Golf Clubincluded a pack of Marlboro Lights. The year was 1996, and as he prepared forhis second appearance at the Masters, Woods was playing a practice roundalongside Ben Crenshaw, the defending champion. Crenshaw's caddie, CarlJackson, liked to keep cigarettes in his bib for such occasions.
"I wouldalways throw down the pack to suggest where a certain pin would be," saysJackson, who first caddied at the Masters in 1961. "I'd suggest that Bentry certain putts, and then Tiger would follow. Tiger followed Ben on every oneof those greens."
Woods missed thecut but took another step in his growth on the most beguiling greens in theworld. "Before he left, I could tell he was in a hurry, but he found mejust to say thank you," Jackson recalls. Woods then told him somethingelse: "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 neverstopped learning—about reading greens, the dynamics of his swing or themechanics of his putting stroke—and that thirst for improvement has carried himthrough dominant stretches, dry patches and every level in between. After an8½-month layoff following left knee surgery, Woods returned to competition inFebruary with a balky putting stroke. So before he teed it up at last week'sArnold Palmer Invitational, he revisited some of the putting basics he'd beentaught as a child by his late father, Earl.
This was theequivalent of a master artist digging through his earliest drawings, and theresults were undeniable. Woods unleashed a putter so pure in his victory at BayHill that the time that had passed since his last win, at the U.S. Open atTorrey Pines last June, seemed to vanish into the dusk. He led the field inputting and rallied from five shots back in the final round to match hislargest comeback on the PGA Tour. He made a remarkable sand save at 14 to staywithin a shot of leader Sean O'Hair, caught him with a 26-foot birdie putt at15, 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 thevictory. Not bad for a guy making only his third start since the layoff.
Woods is nolonger a convalescing golfer, but one with major appointments to keep: theMasters, where he has four wins; the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, where he wonin 2002; the British Open at Turnberry, a links course that demands theprecision he thrives on; and the PGA Championship at Hazeltine, where hefinished second in '02.
After more than adecade of chasing and breaking records, the arithmetic for Woods comes down tothis. If he peaks during those four weeks, he could tie Jack Nicklaus's recordof 18 professional majors—Woods's holy grail—and at the same time match theGrand Slam that Bobby Jones claimed 79 years ago. The hazards are many, and thecompetition on the Tour may be the deepest Woods has ever faced. The math,however, is right.
"I think it'sa big ask," says Rod Pampling, a two-time Tour winner. "It's one ofthose deals like the Triple Crown. Even if you have the favorite horse, it'sstill no guarantee. And they only have 12 horses to run against. Tiger has100."
Woods has comeclose to a Grand Slam before, streaking to four straight majors during the 2000and '01 seasons, but the golf world is more complicated now. Padraig Harringtonhas won the last two majors and three of the last six. Phil Mickelson and GeoffOgilvy have two victories apiece this season.
Charles Howell,Woods's friend, neighbor and occasional playing partner, was recentlyhandicapping the Masters when the subject of the winner came up. One reporterpicked Mickelson. Howell's eyes grew wide.
"Tiger'sdriving it better than ever," Howell warned, and his point was proved asWoods kept pounding the fairways at Bay Hill.
Howell says theimproved driving comes from Woods's ability to remain stable on hisreconstructed left leg, something he couldn't do while playing hurt. "Hehad to hit fades last year because he had to keep coming up off that leftleg," Howell says. "Now he can draw the ball," the preferred shotshape on many of Augusta's holes.
Woodswon¬†four green jackets by age 29, but only one of those came in the lastsix years. Augusta National is no longer the wide-open carpet of fairway onwhich Woods used to hit short irons into par-5s. The course has grown rough,been lengthened (by some 500 yards since Woods first won in 1997) andtightened, and, in the parlance of the day, generally become moreTiger-proofed. The last two years have seen the rise of the scrapper—ZachJohnson, a short knocker who finished two ahead of Woods in 2007, and TrevorImmelman, who used accuracy and average length to beat Woods by three lastyear.
"In timesgone by, the fairways were a little more open and Tiger could be a littlewayward with his driver," says Nick Price, who shares the course record atthe Masters, a nine-under-par 63. "If there is a question at all aboutTiger, it's always been the consistency of his driver. Last year it caught upwith him a little bit. That's what he needs to focus on. Whether he hits awood, two-iron or five-iron, if he puts the ball in the fairway, he will be aserious contender."
IF ACCURACY ismore of a factor than it used to be at the Masters, it remains the essence ofthe U.S. Open. The test at Bethpage Black will be 18 muscular holes. Dealingwith a gallery that likes to get up close and personal with players will be afactor as well. ("Ti-guh, I'm the Ti-guh of building supplies," one fanshouted at Woods when he won at the Long Island course in 2002. "You need atwo-by-faw, I'm the guy to see.")
That year Woodsand Mickelson dueled for New York's heart. Mickelson, without a major at thetime, won the fans. Woods, the only player to finish under par, took thetrophy. Sergio García, endlessly regripping and waggling the club, took tons ofgrief.
"It was asports happening for the metropolitan area," says Joe Rehor, Bethpage'slongtime director of golf. "The fans were shaking the earth."
This year Woodswill find a layout that plays more than 200 yards longer than it did in 2002,when it measured 7,214 yards. With graduated rough to penalize drives thatstray far off-line—a feature the U.S. Golf Association didn't introduce until'06, at Winged Foot—the Black will offer few reprieves.
WOODSWON¬†the first two majors in 2002, but his Grand Slam dream died atMuirfield. This year's British Open will be his first crack at playingTurnberry.
"It's thePebble Beach of the British Open rotation," says Price, who won the lastBritish at Turnberry, in 1994. Unlike most links layouts, on which the holesplay into the wind or downwind, Price says Turnberry challenges golfers with abreeze that blows across most holes. A player must control his ball—whichPrice, '77 champion Tom Watson and '86 winner Greg Norman excelled at. Woodssets the bar in that area today.
"He showedthe ability to manage his game at Hoylake [in 2006], when he used driver justonce all week," Price says of the course on which Woods won his thirdclaret jug. "They've lengthened Turnberry some [by 277 yards, to 7,224],but that's not going to frighten him at all."
Says Watson, whowon the British five times and memorably edged Nicklaus by a shot at Turnberry,"Like Muirfield, Turnberry has a beauty to it in that you have movement ofthe land, compared to the flatness of a Troon or a St. Andrews. You're hittingfrom uphill lies, downhill lies and sidehill lies. The course plays short, so Idon't think Tiger will pull out the driver too many times. You do not hit theball in bunkers in links golf and end up with much success. They are likelittle water hazards. When Tiger took all of the bunkers out of play atHoylake, almost everybody else was hitting drivers, and they'd makemistakes."
IF WOODS topplesthe field in the first three majors, he will chase history at the site of oneof his most stinging defeats. Hazeltine is where Rich Beem danced on the 72ndgreen at the 2002 PGA Championship and denied Woods his third major of the yearwith a devil-may-care attitude and a thumping five-wood.
"I rememberpretty much everything from that week," says Beem. "It's nice for mychildren to think I beat arguably the greatest player of all time. For me,personally, I'm simply glad I won the PGA Championship."
At 7,674 yards—upfrom 7,360 in 2002—the Minnesota course will demand long tee shots, butaccuracy is the key. "They can grow the rough there as easy as anyone inthe country," Beem says. "You can hit it as long as you want, but it'snot going to help you if you don't hit it straight, brother."
Asked howHazeltine—with its gnarly rough and strategically placed bunkers—fits Woods'sgame, Beem says there isn't a course that doesn't set up for Tiger. "He'sdriving it so much better," Beem says. "His iron play is amazing, hisshort game even better, and his putter is off the charts. As high as he hitsit, you'd be silly not to say he's one of the favorites."
Long before hegets to Hazeltine, though, Woods first must conquer the Masters. Every majorchampionship season begins at Augusta National, and no Grand Slam can be wonwithout slipping on a green jacket.
Jackson will bethere too, looping for Crenshaw as always. Woods has struggled with his putterat the last two Masters. Jackson knows Augusta's greens as well as anyone. Anychance for another tutorial?
"I refuse tobother him," Jackson says. "When he's in Augusta, he's there to takecare of business."
It's probablyjust as well. Jackson doesn't smoke anymore.
If accuracy is more of a factor than it used to be atthe Masters, it is THE ESSENCE of the U.S. Open, to be contested at BethpageBlack.
"You can hit it as long as you want," Beemsays of playing Hazeltine, "but it's not going to help you if you don't HITIT STRAIGHT, brother."
My Bag for The Masters
"The only thing I change is my five-wood ortwo-iron. In fast conditions, I used to be able to chase a two-iron [tee shot]down there on number 7 (450-yard par-4), but that's no longer the case. Now theonly time we monkey around with the two-iron is if number 4 (240-yard par-3) isplaying under certain conditions. I hit my five-wood about 10 to 15 yardsfarther than my two-iron—a pretty big gap between my three-iron andfive-wood—so sometimes I'll put in a two-iron just for that shot on number4."
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STROKE OF GENIUS Woods buried the birdie putt at the 18th, his fourth one-putt in five holes, to win for the sixth time at Bay Hill.
BACK AT YOU Mickelson won over the crowd, but Woods won the trophy at the '02 Open.
CONTRASTS Woods and Beem did different dances the last time the PGA was at Hazeltine.
[See caption above]