Tiger breaks drought but is not back yet
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – One boisterous fan spoke for all the others gathered for the victory ceremony behind the 18th green at Sherwood Country Club late Sunday afternoon, order finally restored in the game they adore:
The evidence, after all, was indisputable. Tiger Woods, down by a shot with two holes to go, did what the old Tiger Woods used to do year after year – before his world, and the world of golf, changed forever on that unforgettable Thanksgiving weekend in 2009.
Birdie on 17.
Birdie on 18.
Isn’t that enough? Isn’t that all the proof we need that the work with instructor Sean Foley has paid off and that Woods is well on his way toward regaining his spot as the premier player on the planet?
In a word, no.
That is not to diminish the significance of the Woods victory in his own event, the Chevron World Challenge, by a stroke over Zach Johnson. After going winless for more than two years, any triumph means a lot to Woods, as one could tell from his signature fist pump when the short birdie putt on 18 dropped, and by the wide smile afterwards which wouldn’t go away.
Last year, in this same event, he blew a four-shot lead to Graeme McDowell. This year, he was leading by two with seven holes to go, and appeared as if he might blow it again. The fact he didn’t, that he came up with his best shots under the greatest pressure – the two approaches on 17 and 18 – speaks volumes for how much Woods has progressed during these last few months, and for what he could very well accomplish in 2012.
“It feels great,” Woods said after registering his first win since the 2009 Australian Open. “Kind of hard for me to elaborate beyond that. I know it’s been a while, but also for some reason it feels like it hasn’t.”
At the same time, it is important to provide some perspective to what Woods did here.
For starters, the Chevron World Challenge is an exhibition, not an official PGA Tour event, comprising a field of just 18 players. Besides Woods and Johnson, only Jim Furyk and Keegan Bradley have won major championships.
As a contrast, the field at the Nedbank Golf Challenge in Sun City, South Africa included: Lee Westwood, who won it, Masters champ Charl Schwartzel, Martin Kaymer, world No. 1 Luke Donald, and McDowell. If they had been playing at Sherwood, the Woods triumph would have been really impressive.
Woods was asked a question along those lines. He responded in typical Woods fashion.
“We have world ranking points,” he said.
It is highly likely that Woods, slated to rise to No. 21 with his win, will be back among the Top 10 before the azaleas bloom in Augusta. His confidence level appears to be much greater than it was at this point last year after he finished second to McDowell.
“Last year, I was very one-dimensional how I played,” he said. “I played only right to left. … “This year it’s exciting because I’m able to hit both shots and all different trajectories.”
He also knows how to make the critical mid-round corrections that frequently spell the difference between winning and losing.
“I’m pleased with the way that I’m able to fix my swing out there,” he said. “I know what I need to do to do it right.”
Maybe so, but he will have to prove it again in 2012, especially at the marquee events. There were still too many loose shots, especially in the one-over 73 he fired on Saturday when he lost a four-shot advantage. He may not get away with that next time.
Woods will be judged by how he has always preferred to be judged, by how many majors he can add to the 14 he has racked up since he turned pro in 1996, by whether he can make a run at Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18.
Woods has not won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. He turns 36 later this month and there are many young players who aren’t intimidated by him in the least. Time isn’t infinite the way it once appeared to be, and he can’t afford another serious injury.
He was asked if he is truly back.
“It’s pretty funny,” he said, “because one of my buddies texted me this morning. And he was saying just an old L.L. Cool J lyric, ‘Can’t call it a comeback, been here for years.’”
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