COMMENTARY | There's nothing like a comeback to vault a star athlete back into the good graces of sports fans.
With his ascent back to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking, powered by six wins in the last 13 months, Tiger Woods has just about turned the corner on his fall from grace.
Winning the Masters will complete the makeover. And quell the roar of pundits claiming Woods can no longer win the big one.
Don't get me wrong, the doubters have a case. Woods has spit the bit in several major championships over the last two years, most notably coughing up the halfway lead at last year's U.S. Open and falling back over the weekend at the Open Championship.
I'm giving Tiger the benefit of the doubt for those close calls for two reasons: He was still in the midst of swing change No. 3 with instructor Sean Foley, and he was playing courses in national championship rotations that he only sees every decade or so.
Woods is as familiar with Augusta National as you can get, and the trend of his recent resurgence has been winning on his favorite courses: Torrey Pines, Doral, Bay Hill and Muirfield Village. He tends to get well whenever he drives down Magnolia Lane and into the surreal world of green jackets, patron's badges, hand-operated leaderboards and pimento cheese sandwiches.
For all the harping about not having won at Augusta in eight years, keep in mind that Tiger has contended in all but one Masters since he last won in 2005. Back out his T40 last April, and Woods has finished no worse than sixth in the first major of the year. His record includes back-to-back runner-up finishes in 2007 and 2008.
Even in his first tournament back from his scandal-driven exile in 2010, he pulled off a T4. That's like a heart surgeon coming out of retirement to perform a quadruple bypass. And he managed a similar feat in 2011 with another T4, his only top 10 finish in a season riddled by injuries.
Over his 70 rounds at Augusta National, Tiger has the all-time lowest scoring average of 70.87. That just edges three-time winner Phil Mickelson and is more than a stroke better than six-time champion Jack Nicklaus.
Suffice it to say, Tiger will be in the mix come the back nine Sunday. And while the vision of the red shirt and black cap doesn't inspire the same fear among his competitors that they once did, you've got to believe that there will be some choking up in the final group should Tiger be chasing the lead.
More likely, however, Woods will win from ahead. He's held the lead after three rounds in each of his four Masters victories and that's been his preferred winning style throughout his career. But this trend also suggests that Tiger has to be leading heading into Sunday to have a chance. For all his accomplishments over a storied career, he has never come back to win a major.
I don't think Tiger has the firepower to change that statistic, but his swing is now back in rhythm and his putting has never been better. Just think about that for a second: Tiger's 100 putts in winning at Doral last month were his fewest ever as a professional. That includes the glory years of the Tiger Slam and nine-win seasons.
It's obvious that Woods, now 37, has grown nerves over the years. But unless Steve Stricker undoes the magic he placed on Tiger's putting stroke in Miami, we're looking at the world's best golfer peaking at just the right time to finally cash in again.
Another depressing fact for his competition: Tiger is back to being comfortable in his own skin. He's no longer seeking forgiveness from ex-wife Elin Nordegren or the golfing public. And he made a pretty confident statement by coming out about his relationship with Lindsey Vonn. Quite simply, he's as happy a camper as the world's most obsessive golfer can be.Armed with a repeatable full swing that he can now fix on the fly, a smooth putting stroke and a ton of confidence, I don't see anyone getting in the way of Tiger winning his fifth Masters.
Mark McLaughlin has reported on the PGA Tour for FoxSports.com, the Greensboro News & Record, Burlington (N.C.) Times-News and New York Post. He is a past member of the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association. Follow him on Twitter @markmacduke.
- Sports & Recreation
- Tiger Woods