Masters preview: Will Tiger Woods win?

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You can complain, or you can come to terms with the truth: as long as Tiger Woods still walks the earth, there will be questions about whether he can win the Masters one more time. This year, where he’s coming off his first victory in half a decade and he’s (mostly) injury-free for the first time in forever, Woods has shown up in the land of azaleas as one of the odds-on favorites to snare himself a fifth green jacket.

Sure, he could win. But will he? Let’s dig deep.

How’s Tiger’s game these days?

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Let’s call this what it is: if Tiger’s name was, say, “Tom,” we wouldn’t be giving him nearly the latitude he gets every week. He’s a high-middle-of-the-pack golfer these days. He’s smart enough to think his way around a track like Augusta, a course he knows probably better than his own soul, but he doesn’t have the surgical touch, especially on the greens, he once did.

From a performance perspective, he’s played five PGA Tour events, not including the WGC-Match Play and, uh, the Tiger-vs.-Phil monstrosity. In those five events, he’s made the cut every time, which is good. But he’s also never finished above T10, which isn’t so good. Again: high-middle-of-the-pack.

Sifting further into this year’s stats, with the caveat that we’ve got a small sample size, brings some more illumination. Woods ranks 44th in driving distance and 54th in driving accuracy, which isn’t the kind of statistic you like heading into Augusta National’s pine-lined fairways. He does rank 4th in greens in regulation, suggesting that he’s able to recover from self-inflicted wounds. It’s what happens on the green that’s the trouble.

Woods was once an assassin with the putter. Now? He’s as likely to hit himself in the ankle as drain a key putt. He ranks a stunning 186th in putts per round, leaving stroke after stroke out there on the green. He’s as rocky from three feet out (205th) as he is from 15 to 20 feet out (175th).

Bottom line: if Woods is going to win, he’s going to have to outplay his now-typical performance from tee to flag. It’s not impossible, but it’s not a certainty, either.

What’s the opposition like?

This is where things get tricky for Woods. We need look no further back than the last two majors, where Francesco Molinari ran him down to win the Open Championship and Brooks Koepka didn’t flinch while he charged at the PGA Championship. These guys hadn’t spent their careers quailing in fear every time Woods showed up on a leaderboard; to them, Tiger Woods was a legend, a memory, a figure on the cover of video games — not competition, and certainly not a threat.

That’s the challenge Woods has to overcome now. The margin between him and the rest of the field has evaporated. He won his first Masters by 12 strokes, and his others by 2, 3, and a playoff. He can’t count on that standing-on-18-with-strokes-to-give opportunity this time around. Koepka, Molinari, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose — all of these cats could stare Woods in the face and not crack. (We leave Rory McIlroy off this list because he’s been unable to step up in one-on-one situations against Woods. Beating Tiger to win the Masters would be a hell of a way to rewrite a career narrative, but McIlroy’s not there yet.)

There’s a school of thought that holds that a player has to screen out all outside distraction, to focus on the goal to the exclusion of all else, in order to win. Woods hasn’t shown that kind of bank-vault mental isolation of late; he’s been interacting with galleries and his fellow players in a way we’ve never seen before. Is that a sign of getting older and calmer, or does he need that bear-trap focus in order to win? We’ll find out soon enough.

Prediction: Woods ends the week in the top 10, a few strokes off the lead, but close enough to throw a jolt into the field when he’s wearing Sunday red.

Other Masters previews:

Why is this man smiling? Because he might win the Masters. (AP)
Why is this man smiling? Because he might win the Masters. (AP)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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