ORLANDO, Fla. – Tiger is back!
That was the exciting yet somewhat amusing take-away from the world's former No. 1 winning a single tournament two weekends ago at Bay Hill. A lot of people dearly want Tiger to be back: the PGA Tour, millions of viewers (who helped NBC beat March Madness on CBS on that Sunday afternoon time slot), the New York Post, Nike execs, Hank Haney haters and even gamblers who woke up the Monday after his win to see Woods installed as the early Masters favorite.
But is he really back?
Right or wrong, Woods is judged on how many majors he's won. And he has not won a major since 2008, when he memorably limped to victory at the U.S. Open. To the non-golf world, Woods' career nosedived after his Escalade accident and the ensuing scandal in 2009. But a credible case can be made that Woods started to dissemble after that incredible duel with Rocco Mediate almost four years ago. Yes, Woods went on to win six tournaments in '09. But that year, for the first time since '04, he failed to win a major. (Incredible streak, isn't it?) Woods is now capable of winning any tournament, but he's not "back" until he wins a grand slam event. And for that to happen at the Masters, several concerns have to be allayed beyond more than one great weekend at Bay Hill.
Concern No. 1: Injuries
This seems obvious, but it needs to be made more obvious. Woods withdrew from the tournament in Doral only two weeks before Bay Hill. Those who left him for dead then were just as premature as those who say he's all the way back now. But their concerns are quite legitimate. Woods has had knee issues going all the way back to his days at Stanford. The incredible torque he puts on his lower legs with every swing is a constant threat – almost to the extent of a running back cutting against the grain. It only takes a little bit of pain to throw a swing out of sync. "When one part of your golf swing is weak, you overcompensate," says podiatrist James Wang. "It can also be a mental thing." Woods looked as healthy as ever at Bay Hill, but unlike the relatively flat course at Bay Hill, Augusta National will bring hills and awkward stances.
Concern No. 2: Putting
A lot of people think of Woods as a bomber who forced that courses be lengthened, but during his prime he was more clutch on the greens than anyone else in the game. He inevitably made the knee-knockers no one else could drain. A perfect example came during Round 4 at Bay Hill's 15th green, as Woods had 20 feet for par and playing partner Graeme McDowell had a shorter putt for birdie. It was a potential two-stroke swing with plenty of holes left. McDowell missed his putt; Woods dropped his. Game over. That's the old Tiger. But Woods had a chance to put distance between himself and the field with a five-footer earlier in the round, and he missed. That's not the old Tiger.
The PGA has introduced a Moneyball-ish stat called "Putts Gained." It's about as easy to explain as string theory, but basically it measures how many strokes a golfer is picking up on the greens compared to the rest of the tour. How important is the stat? Well, according to PGATour.com, Luke Donald was tops in putts gained in '09, '10 and '11. He's now the world No. 1 (even though most casual fans would probably rather watch Luke Perry play golf). The last year Tiger played enough to register for the stat, he was second to Donald. But coming into Bay Hill, he was a mediocre 39th. Did he own the greens at Bay Hill because he's so familiar with them? Or has something clicked into place? We don't know yet.
Concern No. 3: Pressure
What? Tiger's the ultimate pressure player, right? Well, yes. He was. But we have yet to see that side of him in this renaissance. Remember how Woods lost the PGA Championship to Y.E. Yang on the final day in 2009? That was such an aberration, but it's become a mini-trend. He had the lead at the Australian Open last year and slipped on the final day. He had a share of the lead in Abu Dhabi earlier this year and finished in third. At Pebble, he was in shouting distance to start the final round and ended up tied for 15th. And don't forget last year at Augusta, when Tiger was "back" for a few electric holes in the final round before being passed by Charl Schwartzl and finishing in a tie for fourth. Woods has only lost four times in his career when he's had a share of the lead after 54 holes, but the majority of those losses have come since his injury-riddled triumph at the 2008 U.S. Open. It seems silly to ask, but the question needs to be posed: Can Tiger close?
Concern No. 4: The field
No way around it: Woods is approaching midlife. He's got a rebuilt swing on rebuilt knees, and Rory McIlroy has a perfect swing on fresh legs. Granted, McIlroy came apart mightily last year at Augusta on Sunday, but then he blew the doors off the field at the U.S. Open. Woods has always been better with a late lead than coming from behind, so if McIlroy rushes out to an early advantage again, it's his to lose and the momentum from Bay Hill will vanish before the weekend. Don't forget Donald, who has not won a major but sure looks primed with that putting game. Of course there's Phil Mickelson, who also is getting up there in age but is catching up to Woods in Masters victories. Lefty can putt, too, you know. But the hard truth for Woods fans is this: Rory's just as likely to be Tiger-like at Augusta as Tiger is.
So is Woods the favorite? Sure. He's got momentum and, well, he's Tiger. But he's set such a high standard that winning a single tournament isn't enough for him to be all the way back. For that, he must close the gap on Jack Nicklaus' 18 major titles. Otherwise the arc of his return is not complete. Tiger's made a career of leaving no doubt, and so his comeback should leave no doubt. A Masters win would certainly do that.
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