AUGUSTA, Ga. — About 20 minutes deep into Tiger Woods’ opening round of The Masters, the overwhelming favorite will provide an initial hint about his chance to win a fifth green jacket.
He should be on the second tee shortly after 10 a.m. and the question is whether he will aim at the bunker on the right side of the fairway and trust he can turn the ball left into the fairway or go with his preferred tee shot, the fade. Anything moving left to right can get into the fairway bunker that is deeper than Woods is tall or go farther astray into the pine needles and foliage right of the first cut.
From the fairway, he can get home in two on the par five and dip into red numbers. From most anywhere else, the second shot is a lay-up.
Like other right-handed participants in The Masters, Woods needs to draw the ball on command, particularly off the tee on a half-dozen holes or so, including Nos. 2, 9 and 13. While winning three times on the PGA Tour this year, his only shortcoming has been the tee shot that strays right.
An irreconcilable stat is his winning percentage vs. fairways hit. Woods has won 60 percent of his five starts in the U.S., yet he is No. 145 on the Tour in driving accuracy percentage, hitting the fairway less than 56 percent of the time.
On the dogleg left ninth, a gentle draw will find a flat area at the bottom of the hill and leave a wedge or so to the green high above. A tee shot to the right is likely to escape the fairway and five-time winner Jack Nicklaus once said: "The second shot is much more difficult when you’re playing … off a downhill, sidehill lie to an elevated green designed to receive a ball that’s been drawn."
Shorter than some of the par fours in recent U.S. Opens, the par-five 13th with pines on the right and a tributary of Rae’s Creek on the left will also test Woods’ confidence. There, Woods or most any of the others who follow Nicklaus’ game plan and work a slight draw off trees on the right, will have an iron to the green. Miss the fairway to the right and the ball is likely to rest on pine needles like Phil Mickelson’s tee shot in 2010. From there, the percentage play is a lay-up. Mickelson threaded a 6-iron onto the green on his way to the green jacket.
"I had to hit a shot between those two trees, whether I laid up or went for the green, and I just decided to hit 90 yards farther than a layup," he explained as only he can.
Missing the fairway at Augusta National by a few yards or so is not extremely penal, but Woods will gobble up the par fives if his drives find the fairways.
Even if Woods’ tee shots go astray on occasion, he can win this week with extraordinary putting. So can several others impossible to identity in advance — note longshots have won four times in the last six years.
With nuances known only to veteran observers, the greens at Augusta National can baffle the best.
For instance, while reading the greens, regular caddies at Augusta remain cognizant of the location of the covered bridge on Rae’s Creek downstream from No. 11 green. Seen only from No. 12 green or No. 13 tee and difficult for Tour caddies to locate, the bridge is a magnet of sorts for putts. Occasionally, a player must disregard what he sees and simply believe that a particular putt on No. 17 breaks uphill.
"What’s so crazy is that we see this course every year, we study the greens every year, we learn something new every year, and they are still difficult," said defending champion Bubba Watson.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.