Masters 2021: Will Woods ever be able to compete at highest level again?

Many of the present-day greats were toddlers when Woods won his first Masters. They grew up in golf wanting to be like him, to emulate him, to beat him
There are, of course, many new stories to star stud this 85th rendering of the Masters, but by far the most important, and most poignant, is about Tiger Woods. He was laid low by a high-speed automobile accident at a treacherous bend in the road and will not be competing in this year’s event. It is said that he is lucky to be alive; a few broken leg bones, loss of blood, reconstructed by the best specialists in the world and now being rehabilitated and recovering at home. With his penchant for secrecy about his private life, it is not at all clear what the prognosis is. Will he ever be able to compete at this level again? Competing means to walk several miles a day for at least four days on undulating surfaces, in all kinds of weather, and still swing well enough despite a severely damaged body. Time will tell. He has recovered well from multiple elective surgeries on his back and knees in the past but severe trauma injuries are something else altogether. All one can say with assurance is that there is no one with a stronger mental attitude to heal again, to compete again, to win — and to pump his fists in demonstration of his invincibility! 

Many of the present-day greats were toddlers when Woods won his first Masters. They grew up in golf wanting to be like him, to emulate him, to beat him. They know well that their growing fortunes were made by the charisma and magnetism of this unique person who swept through the golfing world and changed the paradigm of the game and the “golf industry” forever. In a salute of appreciation to that greatness, many players wore red shirts, Woods’s hallmark colour, during the WGC — Mexico Championship played at The Concession. He appreciated it all from his bedside and probably itched to get back in the mix.  

The next story is, of course, Bryson DeChambeau and his threat to beat Augusta National to a pulp with his prodigious drives and tricky recover­ies. Technology in golf has caused many changes from material for shafts, grooves of irons and dimples on balls to something called Coefficient of Restitution, the lengths of clubs and putters, rule changes, etcetera. Akio Morita’s (of SONY fame) dream of designing a putter that can sink any putt from anywhere on the green has not yet been realised but that day might yet come. Till now, drivers were the longest clubs and wedges were the shortest requiring the player to adjust his stance and swing accordingly. Then, along comes this man with immense self-belief and challenges the received wisdom (sacrilege) with a theory that all clubs should be the same length and, therefore, all golf instruction till now has been faulty. Furthermore, his bulking up with 40 pounds of sheer muscle seems to make a mockery of the hereto­fore normal mantra of fitness and strength.  He now not only outdrives any human being on the planet but also has excellent finesse recovery shots (necessary because very long drives are often wayward). 

Bryson Dechambeau
While recovery shots on Augusta National greens are not easy owing to its “other world” slopes and speeds, winning eight PGA Championships including a Major by age 27 means that he can drive, chip and putt as good as any. He’s looking to extract every legal advantage over his peers. Tiger Woods did that, too, with incomparable fitness and strength. Woods had many copycats because it just meant spending more time in the gym for them, but Bryson is likely to have none. How many can bulk up 40 pounds of muscle and still win a Major? Rory McIlroy already tried to match up and developed serious swing problems as a consequence. Most golfers with perfectly adequate swing will not be attempting that feat. Fear of injury, fear of constant upkeep, fear of health consequences without the passion and self-belief and the scientist’s acceptance of failure will deter them all. They will just have to cope with six irons to the greens on Par 4s while Bryson is wedging it in, even on some par 5s for his second shot.  Will he win every tournament he enters, or even achieve the win percentage of Tiger Woods? No. Will he win many more tournaments including Majors? Yes. Will he cause transformation in the technology used for clubs and balls? Possibly. Will there be pressure for redesigning championship golf courses worldwide? Yes, to trap incredibly long drives with more penalty areas.

The fact is that distance off the tee has always made a huge difference, but you still have to pitch and putt to hole out. Ian Woosnam was only five-foot-four-and-a-half inches tall but could hit the ball as far with a Persimmon wood as Bryson can today with high technology drivers and balls. John Daly was another, and there were and are several others. So we shall see whether Bryson can win at this Masters because this venue requires humility and substantial course knowledge and a past winner has just reached peak form.  

The other great story is of Jordan Spieth “finding” his game again after a wander in the wilderness for three years.  After he plunked two balls into Rae’s Creek, fronting the treacherous 12th green while leading the Masters in 2016, literally chicken winging both shots, he just seemed to have lost it mentally.  Incredible missed cuts caused him to drop like a stone outside of the top 50 in world rankings thereby not qualifying for several tournaments while knowing deep down that he had it in him. Seeing all his peers excel and win while he floundered instead of being in the mix was frustrating as anything one can imagine. The over analysing media asking whether his day had passed, and awarding him “F” for performance, did not help. After all, one doesn’t win 12 tournaments in his first five years as a pro, including three Majors, if one doesn’t have the heady brew of skill, talent, risk-taking attitude, youth and good health coursing through one’s veins. 

Jordan Spieth
Spieth’s collapse at the 2016 Masters, when leading by five shots going into the final back nine, made Greg Norman’s collapse in 1996 look like a walk in the park. It does something to the mind. He couldn’t recover and allowed an unlikely Danny Willett to gain his moment of immortality. Since then, despite winning even The Open in 2017, his game has been beset with endless struggles to get back to the level he once was at. He kept pushing, week after week, to no avail. Then he did not touch a club for a month and drew on infinite patience to gradually exit from the slough of despond to ascend the sun-drenched tawny peaks of winning positions, and then he did win. Ball striking fell into a groove, his putts started dropping and suddenly he’s in the winners’ circle again, at the top of his game going into the first Major of the year. The monkey is off his back. Jordan Spieth is back! 

Compared to these stories, everyone else, with the possible exception of England’s Lee West­wood, who was pipped at the post twice, is coming in somewhat un­der the radar. Inevitably, incre­di­b­ly, the drama that attends every Masters is hovering over us again as nobody is thinking of letting the other win; Dustin Johnson will def­end till the end; McIlroy might find his rhythm and add this last miss­ing Major to his portfolio; a host of others with stars in their eyes will surely throw down the gauntlet even for the defending champion.

Wait for the four acts of this drama to unfold and deliver a surprising denouement.

My money is on Jordan.


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