Once upon a time Tiger Woods insisted he would never contest a major unless he was tournament-ready. That was in the days when he ruled the world and viewed the game from a position of strength.
No such luxury attends him now. By definition Woods, who has dropped outside the world’s top 100 for the first time in 19 years, cannot be ready on those terms should he accept the invitation to attend the Masters.
By electing to play Augusta on Tuesday, the world No 104 demonstrated his desire to be involved. That he did not commit to the tournament then offers its own commentary on the state of his game.
The inference must be that the greatest player of the modern era is yet to be convinced that his form is capable of standing up to the scrutiny of Augusta, sacred territory on which he has won four times.
His agent, Mark Steinberg, confirmed Woods had played 18 holes but left us no nearer a definitive answer about his readiness. “Tiger clearly is working hard and he will advise as to when he is ready to play competitively,” he said.
Woods’ last engagement came at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in the first week of February. He lasted all of 12 holes before embarrassment forced him off the course to seek a solution for his short-game yips.
The 82 he posted six days earlier at the Waste Management Open in Phoenix was his highest competitive round as a professional. The post-back operation complaints that were also troubling him were easily fixed. The crisis was around the greens, where he hacked about the terrain like a 24-handicapper.
Few venues demand more of a player’s short game than Augusta, with its tight lies and rapier quick greens. This was always a part of Woods’ game that we thought bomb-proof.
Woods claimed his present woes are a result of yet another swing change to accommodate the new biomechanical demands imposed by surgery a year ago to cure a long-standing lower-lumbar issue.
While that argument has merit, it does not wholly explain such a steep decline. Woods took up with new coach Chris Como because the methods of former aide Sean Foley were considered unsuitable for his post-op condition. The introduction of new, unfamiliar swing patterns meant the unlearning of old habits.
Yet insiders claim that in terms of his long game Woods is ready to go. The yips, however, are not so much the result of technical inadequacy but mental failure and, as a result, are not so easy to fix, particularly under pressure.
It seems the only way to properly measure competence is under tournament conditions, but that is no longer possible before the Masters. If he wasn’t ready last week it is hard to imagine how he can be seven days later.
The sport rolls on without him at the Shell Houston Open today, where many of those who will be at Augusta will sharpen their tools – 14 of the world’s top 20 are in the field, including Jordan Speith, Patrick Reed, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia, plus marquee names like Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood and Padraig Harrington, already a winner at this year’s Honda Classic.