COMMENTARY | Stop me if you've heard this before, but Tiger Woods is back.
And he's back in more ways than one.
Not only did Woods' second win at the Players Championship on Sunday bring his career win total on the PGA Tour to 78, but he also accomplished something he hasn't done ever, notching his fourth victory in a season by mid-May, the fastest he's won four tournaments in any season in his career.
The Players' crown was vintage Tiger, steadily going about his business over the first three rounds and putting himself in a tie for the lead heading into Sunday afternoon.
54-hole leads are where Woods has always flourished. The win at the PGA Tour's flagship event marked the 52nd time Woods converted while holding at least a piece of the lead after three rounds. Only failing to win on four other occasions, Woods' closing percentage sits at an insane 92.8-percent. To put that in context, Mariano Rivera, the famed Yankees closer, only boasts an 89.5-percent closing rate.
Sticking to his conservative game plan, Woods rarely pulled driver while navigating around Pete Dye's TPC Sawgrass, instead settling for three- and five-woods off the tee to put him in position and keep him out of trouble.
"The golf course played tricky today," Woods said in his champion's press conference. "It was fast and difficult, and I hit it so good today, it was fun. I hit it high, low, left-to-right, right-to-left, whatever I wanted, except for that tee shot at 14. I didn't really miss a whole lot of shots. I pured a lot of putts, too."
Plodding along against a stout leaderboard that included the likes of Sergio Garcia, Jeff Maggert, Kevin Streelman and David Lingmerth, Woods couldn't separate himself from the field over the first nine holes of the final round, but gained some momentum with a birdie 3 from just off the green on the par-4 12th hole.
With a little breathing room two shots clear of his nearest pursuers, Woods made things interesting on the difficult 14th hole when he dunked his tee shot in the water that guards the right side of the hole.
"The pop‑up hook, that was a shot that I was hitting early on when I was working with (swing coach Sean Foley) because of the plane where I come from to where Foles wanted to get me, I would occasionally hit that shot," Woods explained. "When I hit it, I'm like, 'okay, here we go, you haven't hit a shot like this all week, so forget it. I've been playing great all day, so be it. Let's make a bogey and let's get this thing into the clubhouse.'"
Woods couldn't make a bogey. Instead, after a drop that received some skepticism concerning its legality from NBC's Johnny Miller, Woods hit an approach short of the green and failed to get up-and-down for bogey, erasing his two shot lead and putting himself in a four-way tie for first.
In the second-to-last group, Woods' caddie, Joe LaCava, made sure to let his man know where he stood throughout the closing stretch.
"I figured I was tied for the lead and if I played the last four holes at the time under par, I thought at worst I'd be in a playoff," Woods said. "(LaCava) did a helluva job keeping me focused (coming down 18). He told me I had a one-shot lead and I said, 'perfect.'"
Playing the final four holes one-under was more than good enough for a playoff, giving Woods the outright lead and forcing his competitors to come get him.
One of his closest pursuers, Garcia, took himself out of contention when he dropped two balls in the water at the island green 17th hole, taking a quadruple bogey 7, essentially drowning his dreams of a second Players title.
Lingmerth, on the other hand, rose to the occasion with a tee shot on 17 to 7-feet-7 inches, but was unable to convert the birdie. Another run at birdie on the 18th slid by the left side of the hole, assuring a Woods victory.
Holding the crystal on Sunday evening, Woods improved his latest run of success to winning seven of the last 22 events he has entered with a date at Jack Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament looming in two weeks.
Still without a major since the 2008 US Open, expectations have only increased for Woods at the majors as he showed that he can handle courses with trouble off of the fairway a la Merion where the US Open will be contested in a month's time.
Already the favorite in every tournament he enters, Woods' stock continues to rise and his game, new swing and new life continue to find a balance he hasn't seen since the early part of the century.
Whether he's "back" or not should no longer be in question. He's proven with his play over the last two years that he's the man to beat and the best player in the world.
The scariest part for the rest of the field is that he proved this week at TPC Sawgrass that he can win at courses that don't necessarily suit his style.
Look out, Merion, the old Tiger is coming.
Chris Chaney is a Cincinnati, Ohio-based sportswriter. He has written for multiple platforms including WrongFairway.com, Hoopville.com, The Cincinnati (OH) Enquirer and The Clermont (OH) Sun. Follow him on Twitter @Wrong_Fairway.
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