So, we’re faced once again with a three-word question for which almost everyone has an opinion, yet nobody can definitively answer.
Is Tiger back?
Those saying yes watched New Tiger look like Old Tiger over the weekend, winning the Memorial with the kind of precise shot-making, clutch putting, fist-pumping panache, and flair for the dramatic that has defined his career. Three birdies over his final four holes, including a flop-shot chip-in for the ages? Vintage Old Tiger.
Naysayers are making just one point, and considering the subject it carries a good deal of weight: Until New Tiger wins a major, he’s no threat to Old Tiger.
Fascinating debate, as is usually the case when it comes to Tiger Woods, no matter on which side of the fence you sit.
For the second straight time in 2012, Woods will head to a major championship coming off a victory, the bookmakers already stamping him the favorite for next week’s US Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Winning before a major has certainly ratcheted up the expectations, but it hasn’t been good for Woods, at least when it comes to his quest to pad his major résumé and inch closer to the record of 18 held by Jack Nicklaus. The last six times Woods has played in a major coming off a victory, someone else has slipped on the green jacket, won the US Open, kissed the claret jug, or lifted the Wanamaker Trophy.
It happened at this year’s Masters - Woods winning two weeks earlier at Bay Hill, then going T40 at Augusta National - and at all four majors in 2009, before some scandal you may have heard about spawned Tiger 2.0. Three years ago, Woods won his final start before the Masters (Bay Hill), the US Open (Memorial), British Open (AT&T National), and PGA Championship (Bridgestone). His major results weren’t bad, although he missed the cut at the British; Woods had sixth-place finishes at the Masters and US Open in 2009, and was second at the PGA, losing a 54-hole lead in a major for the first time, clipped at the tape by Y.E. Yang.
You’d have to go back to 2007, when Woods won the Bridgestone and PGA Championship, to find consecutive victories, with the second being a major.
What does it all mean? Who knows. Anyone who says they can predict what’s going to happen next with Woods hasn’t been paying attention the past 2 1/2 years.
Just when it seems he’s about to return to his familiar form, he’ll play poorly or reaggravate an injury.
Consider: For all the praise being lavished on Woods now, he’s played in 30 PGA Tour events since the start of the 2010 season, and placed in the top 10 seven times, a rate of 23 percent. Prior to that, since turning professional in 1996, Woods placed in the top 10 in 164 out of 239 tour events, a mind-blowing 69 percent.
This much we do know. When Woods is on his game, he’s still capable of beating great fields on great courses in great tournaments hosted by all-time greats, as his wins this year at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Nicklaus’s Memorial most certainly attest.
But the days of it happening more often than not might be gone. His two wins this year simply put him in the same category as Hunter Mahan and Jason Dufner, solid players having stellar seasons.
Woods isn’t like anybody else, never has been, and isn’t judged the same way, fairly or unfairly. How close Woods gets to Nicklaus’s major record will ultimately be the only scorecard that matters, at least when it comes to his golf. Everything else he does will also be scrutinized, just like before, but he’s been so good for so long, his success now depends almost solely on how many more majors he wins.
Which record do you think means more to Woods, the 82 career PGA Tour victories owned by Sam Snead, or the 18 majors won by Nicklaus? I know what my guess is. Sorry, Sam.
It was poetic, though, to have Woods notch PGA Tour win No. 73 (which tied Nicklaus for second) at Jack’s place. Seeing the two of them at an interview table together - 146 combined tour wins, 32 majors, two of the most dominant players the game has ever known - never gets old. Nicklaus may have bobbled the torch of undisputed top dog a few times over the course of a career that saw him win majors 24 years apart, but it was ultimately passed to Woods, who is still recovering from the self-inflicted burn marks that came from dropping it. He’s now the fourth-ranked player in the world (the highest-ranked American, though), intent on reclaiming the No. 1 spot he owned, for the most part, from 1997-2009.
Maybe the push continues next week in San Francisco. Woods, a Californian by birth, went to Stanford for two years, and has 13 PGA Tour victories in the Golden State, including two of his three US Opens (2000 at Pebble Beach, 2008 at Torrey Pines). He’s coming home, riding high, a marked man, considered the favorite. Just like old times.
Is Tiger back? Not until he wins a major or two. But he doesn’t look lost anymore.