John Huggan: Tiger Woods on his way back to No.1

There are perhaps two appropriate responses to professional golf’s most tedious question.

Either, “not yet,” or “not quite”. Actually, make that three. “He’ll never be completely ‘back’, not to the level of almost complete dominance he owned around the turn of the century,” is probably the most accurate assessment of the man who many believe to be the best golfer of all time. One thing is for sure though. Not until Tiger Woods wins what will be his 15th major championship – and goes on to pass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 – does the conversation even have to begin.

Until then, it must be acknowledged that what we saw seven days ago was the current world No.2 – bet on him being No.1 by next month’s Masters – taking another step up the lonely ladder only he occupies. Woods’ World Golf Championship victory at Doral was his 15th (to put that in perspective, no one else has more than three) and the first since that distasteful business involving a fire hydrant and assorted cocktail waitresses.

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In truth, last week had a distinct feeling of déjà vu about it all. This was vintage Woods. After building a formidable four-shot advantage through 54-holes, Tiger followed a familiar formula in the final round: eliminate disasters, play for the middle of most greens, let the others be aggressive, allow the rest to take risks by hitting the low-percentage shots. It was his patented recipe for ultimate success, one he has used many times.

It’s hard to blame Woods though. His typical winning scenario may not be the most entertaining, but it is certainly efficient. The Woods record when protecting a last-day lead – 50 wins from 54 – is an amazing statistic, even when, on breezy days like last Sunday, the pins are inexplicably tucked away. When that is the case, the really low score is probably only going to be shot by someone far down the field, the man playing with little or no pressure (see Adam Scott and Rory McIlroy) – a fact of which Tiger is well aware.

Still, this was a much-improved performance from a man almost five years removed from a first-place finish in any of the four events that really matter to him. The last-round play we saw at the soon-to-be “blown up” Doral was the sort of tactical approach that typically wins US Opens. So significant progress is clearly being made under the guidance of coach Sean Foley.

“Tiger is playing much better this season,” acknowledges his former “swing man”, Hank Haney. “His distance control with the wedges has improved tremendously since last year, a fact evidenced by the fact that he made a lot of birdies from inside 100 yards.”

Elsewhere, however, the picture wasn’t quite so perfect. As Haney points out, the perennially weakest part of Woods’ game, while better, remains a doubt.

“Because of the distance so many of the professionals now hit the ball, a lot of them are benefiting from not having to hit many drivers,” continues the Dallas-based coach. “Tiger is definitely one of those players. When I taught him, he missed about 85 per cent of his fairways to the right, even though he would sometimes say he had a ‘two-way’ miss going. And over the last three years that has actually been true; his misses with the driver have been almost 50-50 left and right.

“Last week, however, was different. Last week Tiger largely eliminated the left-side miss. For any player, eliminating half the golf course is a great confidence boost.”

For all that, the biggest factor in Woods’ 76th victory on the PGA Tour – only the late Sam Snead with 82 has more – was his extraordinary putting. An average of 25 per round makes the odd missed fairway or green a lot less significant.

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“Winning on tour usually boils down to putting,” agrees Haney. “Nine out of ten winners finish in the top-ten for putting that week. And last week Tiger was first in that category. His former caddie, Steve Williams, used to say that if Tiger was ever under 120 putts in a tournament he would win. Last week, he hit only 100 putts – a total I believe was the lowest of his career – so victory was almost assured.

“There is good and bad news in that, of course. One side of the coin says that his putting is clearly much better; the other says Tiger took 100 putts in 72 holes and won by only two shots. If nothing else, that does show how stiff the competition is now, compared with even ten years ago.”

Haney, as ever, makes a good point. While this latest Woods win was certainly impressive, closer examination – which some of the more rabid Tiger fans will inevitably find picky in the extreme – does reveal lingering doubts. For one thing, his putting performance, ironically the result of a pre-tournament lesson from eventual runner-up Steve Stricker, is probably not a sustainable formula for success. Making so many – or missing so few – is not something any player can rely on. Last week, in all probability, was a once-in-a-year phenomenon.

The driving too, remains fragile. One of the reasons Tiger has failed to win a Masters since 2005 is because of the lengthening of Augusta National. Forced to use the longest club in his bag more often than he is comfortable with, he is not the omnipotent force he once was on a course that otherwise plays almost perfectly into his formidable arsenal of shots and tactical nous.

Also placing Woods under increased pressure during the four weeks that really matter is the obvious fact that – while totting up the odd tour victory is obviously nice and provides welcome boosts to the old confidence – victories in the major championships are all that history will really remember.

“It’s all about the majors for Tiger,” confirms Haney, who guided his former student to six Grand Slam titles. “For any player, victory in any of the four means matching a good ball-striking week with a good putting week. In the past, the ball-striking part was a given for Tiger. And it looks like he is approaching that level again.”

Haney is right to hedge his bets slightly. Golf at the highest level has moved on from the time around the turn of the century when Woods was winning majors at an unprecedented rate. Perhaps the biggest shift has come in the area of technology, especially the bigger driver heads and the reluctance of the modern ball to spin.

First, the enlarged sweet spots have made almost every tour professional at least a decent driver. Second, the ball has made the hitting of straight shots almost routine for those with even half-decent methods. Thus, the difference between great and good and between good and not-very-good-at-all, has never been less significant.

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All of which only makes Woods’ stellar career even more impressive. At a time when separating oneself from one’s competition has never been more difficult, he has done just that, to an almost unprecedented extent. Whatever his faults as a human being – of which there are many – we are lucky to have been witnesses to his greatness as a golfer.