EXACTLY five weeks from now we’ll know if Tiger Woods really is back. It sure looks that way, given the fact he’s won twice already this year, convincingly so on both occasions, too.
But let’s wait until the season’s first major has been decided before we start getting carried away.
After all, a week before winning the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral – his biggest victory since 2009 – Woods wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders as he lost two balls, probably for the first time in his professional career, in finishing well down the field in the Honda Classic.
Admittedly, the 37-year-old’s performance in claiming a 76th career win, leaving him six short of the record 82 victories by Sam Snead, was hugely impressive, as was the case at Torrey Pines earlier in the year. In 72 holes over the Blue Monster at Doral, he required just 100 putts, a career best, while a haul of 25 birdies was just one short of his record on the PGA Tour.
If he wins again in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in just under a fortnight’s time, Woods will be back at world No 1, a position he last held in October 2010 and one which has been shared since by Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy. Yet, probably more than ever in his career, it looks as though The Masters is going to be the most defining moment in Tiger’s season and, quite possibly, his quest to first catch, then overtake Jack Nicklaus as the game’s greatest player.
It is, after all, nearly five years since Woods chalked up major No 14 – he has four less than the Golden Bear – and for all that he’s now won five times in the last 12 months, it’s the big ones that have always mattered most to Tiger and, for example, he’s not triumphed at Augusta National since 2005. He’ll head there this year having won twice before the season’s opening major for the first time in five years and will be a merited favourite, too.
According to caddie Joe LaCava, his performance in Miami was Tiger’s best since they started working together. It was also probably his finest all-round display under Sean Foley’s tutelage. “That’s how I know I can play,” said Woods of a triumph that was far more comfortable than his eventual winning margin of two shots suggest. “To be able to bring it out a couple times so far this year – and then be able to close and get the Ws on top of that – that’s nice. Any time I can win prior to Augusta, it always feels good.”
Thanks to a pre-event tip from Steve Stricker, who, ironically, ended up as his closest challenger, Woods holed putts the way he used to – averaging 25 per round on lighting-fast greens is phenomenal – but just as impressive was the way he manoeuvred his golf ball around a course that is now set for a major revamp by its owner, Donald Trump.
“He doesn’t have those kind of off-the-radar balls anymore,” noted Graeme McDowell, who played alongside Woods in the final two rounds. “In 2010, ’11 when I was playing with him, he would hit the odd shot where you just would kind of blink twice and go, ‘really, that’s wide’.
“[But] in this wind the last couple of days, his ball flight control was pretty stunning and it was pretty cool to watch. I thought his short game and putting the last couple of days was also very impressive. He cleaned up everything he had to clean up pretty much. It was good stuff.”
Whether Woods being able to turn back the clock is anything to do with him having a happier home life again is anyone’s guess. In Abu Dhabi earlier this year, it was being rumoured that Elin, his former wife, was set to give him a second chance. Soon after that he was reported to be in a relationship with Lindsay Vonn, the American Olympic skier but, recently, Woods was pictured enjoying a family picnic with Elin and their two children. There’s little chance of Woods himself giving us an update on that situation but, whatever’s happening off the course, it’s certainly contributing to positive results on it again and that clearly wasn’t the case for a long while. “He just seems in a better place, mentally, to me,” observed close friend Stricker. “He seems to be having fun.”
Compared to most people, Woods doesn’t really know what fun means and, at times, he can still verge on being a despicable character. There’s no denying though that, even compared to McIlroy, there’s no-one that can create excitement in golf the way he does. As he started building a head of steam in Miami in Friday’s second round, there was a frenzy of activity on Facebook and Twitter and it hasn’t stopped since.
Woods has won majors six of the seven times he’s begun a season with multiple victories ahead of The Masters. No pressure there then and McIlroy, for one, will be delighted the spotlight has moved off him in the build up to that event.
Augusta will be fascinating and, by the time the major circus rolls into Muirfield in mid-July, we could have the mouth-watering prospect of the world’s top two both firing on all cylinders and going head-to-head for the Claret Jug. Here’s hoping.