COMMENTARY | Since Tiger Woods ran into a fire hydrant the night after Thanksgiving 2009 until his win at Bay Hill last year, the question was: Will Woods ever regain the dominance of years past?
So many dismissed the question. The naysayers said Woods could recover from the bruises of a low-speed car wreck, but the embarrassment of a months-long slew of revelations about his personal life probably would permanently scar his professional career.
Now look at Woods. He's back as world No. 1 by the highest margin in the Official World Golf Ranking since the unpleasantness dribbled into 2010. He's won four times this season, doing so sooner in the calendar year than at any other time in his career -- even the dominant 2000 season, where he won nine times on the PGA Tour.
In seven PGA Tour starts this season, Tiger's batting .571. Throw out the WGC-Accenture Match Play, and Woods is winning at a .667 clip in U.S. stroke-play tournaments. Sick.
Not even the golf courses that have given Woods the most trouble can slow him down these days. Woods had one win in 15 prior appearances at The Players Championship, that is until last weekend. He won at TPC Sawgrass for the second time in his career, joining an illustrious club of two-time winners at the Stadium Course.
Woods will play next at the Memorial Tournament at the end of May, defending the title he won at Jack Nicklaus' place a year ago to tie the Golden Bear with 73 PGA Tour wins. After that, it's onto the U.S. Open at Merion where, despite Woods never having set foot on the Philly-area club, the world No. 1 will be a prohibitive favorite.
With all of the evidence clearly pointing toward the return of Woods' competitive splendor, is there anyone in the world that can stop him?
Right now, the answer seems to be "no."
Woods is not only doing the things he has in the past to win, but has even improved in areas he was lagging as he aged.
In par-5 scoring, Woods is No. 1 on the PGA Tour -- a statistic he owned from 2000-03 and, after a year off to make a swing change in 2004, again in '05, '06 and '09. When Woods wins at his most prolific rate, he dominates the longest holes on the course.
An improving area for Woods is putting. He leads the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting, the somewhat amorphous stat used to determine the best with the flat stick. Retroactively analyzing data back to 2004, Woods has never been top dog in that category, but in 2007 and '09, Woods was in the top three for the year. Between those two seasons, Woods won 13 times, although he managed just one major title in that span.
Tiger even leads the PGA Tour in percentage of greens hit in regulation from inside 125 yards, which was a glaringly lagging part of his game a year ago despite a three-win campaign. Woods was 48th last year in that stat.
Every indicator seems to suggest Woods is at his for being a 37-year-old man now almost three full years into his work with teacher Sean Foley.
The major sites for the remainder of the year even suggest Woods could replicate the 2000 campaign of nine wins, including three major titles.
Woods has never played at Merion, site of the U.S. Open, but fortunately for him, hardly any of his peers have either. The Open was last at the club in 1981. The course will play under 7,000 yards, forcing players to be extremely accurate off the tee or face very penal rough.
Woods has won on a course like that before, taking the '06 Open Championship at burnt-out Royal Liverpool. He didn't a need a driver that week, but picked apart a venue that had not held the game's oldest major since 1967. A lack of familiarity was not a problem.
Speaking of the Open and the Claret Jug, Woods was not successful in winning it at Muirfield in 2002, where the Open returns this July. Woods finished T-28, six shots out of a four-man playoff that Ernie Els ultimately won. Then again, Woods was going for a third consecutive major that week. Muirfield is not especially long, but the wind and weather will likely dictate Woods' fate in Scotland.
Perhaps the only major of the three that does not seem to suit Woods is Oak Hill, which plays host to the PGA Championship. The upstate New York club last held the PGA in 2003, where Woods was mired in swing-change limbo. Shaun Micheel won in a nailbiter, beating Chad Campbell by two with a 72nd-hole birdie for the ages. However, the course will play under 7,200 yards, which allows Woods to play the kind of strategic golf that complements his patient approach to winning.
It's not likely, but certainly not out of the realm of possibility for Woods to sweep the final three majors of the year. That would put him at 17 majors, one shy of tying Jack Nicklaus and staring a second Tiger Slam in the face at the 2014 Masters.
As Woods would insist, it's all a process. The Woods machine is humming, however, and seemingly no one can stop it but Woods himself.
Ryan Ballengee is a Washington, D.C.-based golf writer. His work has appeared on multiple digital outlets, including NBC Sports and Golf Channel. Follow him on Twitter @RyanBallengee.
- Sports & Recreation
- Tiger Woods
- PGA Tour