It’s rare these days, when you’re discussing career achievements, to find something that Tiger Woods has never accomplished on the golf course.
Yet there he was Sunday at the Players Championship, after the inevitable mistake by Jeff Maggert, the “Tin Cup”-inspired implosion from Sergio Garcia, and the valiant effort from unknown rookie David Lingmerth. There was Woods, alone at the top, winning a fourth tournament this season on the PGA Tour, faster than he’s ever bagged four titles before.
Twice he’d won four times by June 1, in 2000 and 2001, back in his prime. Both of those years, his fourth win came at the Memorial, which is played at the end of May. His next start comes there in two weeks, at the tournament hosted by Jack Nicklaus, giving Woods a golden opportunity to establish a win-per-month pace for 2013. Nobody else has more than one PGA Tour win this season, by the way.
That his fourth victory of this still-young season came on a TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course that had roughed up Woods over the years, and in spite of a final-round mistake that typically serves as a death blow for anyone harboring trophy aspirations, should serve as more solid proof that Woods is building toward the form we’ve come to expect. Unfairly, you could say, because golf at the highest level isn’t nearly as easy as Woods is making it look.
It also sets the stage for Woods to return to the winner’s circle at a major championship, something we haven’t seen in five years, his longest drought as a professional. Woods’s obstacles since Thanksgiving 2009 (life change, coach change, swing change, health) left some debating whether Woods winning more majors remained a matter of if. He’s making it seem by his play — and making a stronger case after every tournament — that it’s simply a matter of when.
It could happen at next month’s US Open at Merion, a course Woods has never played. But at just 6,996 yards, and with rough as thick as stew, don’t expect Woods — or most anyone else — to wear out the driver.
He might have unknowingly prepped for that last week at Sawgrass, consistently keeping driver in the bag and making sure he was properly placed in the fairway. It was a strategy that worked well at Sawgrass, and it will definitely work well at Merion.
What PGA Tour win No. 78 (four behind Sam Snead’s all-time record) may have lacked in Woodsian dominance, it made up for in drama, both on the course and off. His silly spat with Garcia allows neither thin-skinned player to come away unscathed.
Garcia can be charming one minute, childish the next. He’s always brutally honest, though, at times to a fault, and his critical comments of Woods (“He’s not my favorite player to play with . . . He’s not the nicest guy on tour”) could very well hold more than an ounce of truth.
But anybody who knows Woods can guess how he’d react: So what? I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to win. It’s what I do.
That mentality has filled his house with trophies, but hasn’t endeared him to everybody. Some will take issue with the public dig he took at Garcia (“Not real surprising that he’s complaining about something”). They’ll cite the report this week that quoted the gallery marshals at No. 2, whom Woods said informed him that Garcia had already played his second shot, thus making it OK for Woods to pull the club out of his bag that prompted the assembled fans to react loudly. It was Woods’s explanation for the incident that clearly upset Garcia.
They’ll also take issue (as a number of you did via e-mail) with the drop Woods took on No. 14, after pulling his drive into the water left of the fairway. To many, including some of the NBC announcers, it appeared that Woods advanced a lot farther than he should have been permitted to take his penalty drop. But to those who were there and were left to decide — Woods and the other player in the group, Casey Wittenberg — Woods took his penalty drop exactly where he should have.
“There is no doubt, guys,” Wittenberg said after the final round. “The ball crossed where he dropped. I saw it perfectly off the tee. I told him exactly where I thought it crossed, and we all agreed.”
Agreeing on anything involving Woods isn’t easy, but few can argue with his results this season. Or last, for that matter. He has won seven times since March 2012, more than anyone, and reclaimed the top spot in the world rankings.
It hasn’t been the smoothest ride, but Woods clearly likes the direction in which he’s heading. He has never been the best talker, but that’s never been a high priority. As Garcia was facing the music and answering questions about sending three balls into the water when he and Woods were tied for the Players lead with two holes to play, Woods was smiling for the cameras, holding a nice piece of crystal. No words were necessary.
Not too long ago, Woods playing his way into contention was news. Now it’s a surprise when he’s not; in six stroke-play events this year, he has gone 1-37-1-1-4-1, similar to his abbreviated 2008 season, when he won four times in six starts. That year ended with a win at the US Open, the last time Woods won a major.
Next month at Merion, or in July at Muirfield, or in August at Oak Hill — or in all three, as Woods is probably thinking — he can effectively silence anyone still chirping that he’s not the player he once was.
That player is gone. But this one, by all accounts, is still pretty good.