A Masters unlike any other could be most challenging of Tiger Woods’ career

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Tiger Woods is less than a month away from his 23rd start at the Masters which, for a monsoon of reasons, may prove to be his most challenging trip down Magnolia Lane.

He’s the defending champion. He’s won five green jackets. He’s still the most intimidating player in the game when he’s coming downhill at Augusta National, even at 44 years old. And, of course, he’s Tiger.

Under normal circumstances, all those things would weigh heavily in Woods’ favor, but it’s painfully obvious to all that these are not normal circumstances.

In April, when the azaleas are ablaze and the pollen thick, Tiger is a finetuned machine, ready for anything following more than two decades of trial and very little error. In the spring, he begins tooling his game during the Florida swing, working on shots, envisioning drives, dialing in his short game. By the time the year’s first major arrives every box has been checked.

This year, well, it’s 2020.

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After missing the cut at last month’s U.S. Open, Woods took four months off, worked on his game and body and returns to action this week at the Zozo Championship, where he’s defending his first title on the PGA Tour since 2014. On Tuesday he offered a strangely uncertain answer when asked his “blueprint” for this year’s Masters.

“I think my plan is just to play and practice. I don’t know if I’m going to play Houston [Open] or not. I’m not playing next week, and we’ll see how this week goes and make a decision from there,” he said.

Woods has never played the Houston Open. He’s never played the week before the Masters. He’s never really been one to “see how this week goes.” That’s not a plan, it’s a rough outline, and it’s not Tiger.

To Tiger’s credit he doesn’t have much of a choice.

When the pandemic winds blew the Tour’s schedule into chaos and two majors into the fall, the players rolled with it. If playing the Masters in November without patrons is the only way, then that’s what they will do. For Tiger, that meant reworking his routine and coming up with a new plan.

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Things didn’t play out well at Winged Foot, where he missed the cut with rounds of 73-77, and Tiger has played just 18 rounds of Tour golf in the last 246 days, the byproduct of pandemic, poor play and personal preference. It all makes this week’s Zozo Championship, with apologies to the fans in Houston, his likely last start before the Masters.

“It’s not normally this time of year. It’s not normally played this way, the configuration of events. We’re not in a Florida swing. This is all different,” he said. “This whole year’s been different for all of us. The fact that the Masters will be held in November, it’s unprecedented, never been done before.

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