PITTSFORD, N.Y. — It wasn’t all that long ago when Tiger Woods was singing a much different tune.
For the first dozen years of his professional career — when he was frequently winning major championships — Woods would differentiate between a good season and a great season by answering one simple question: Did he win a major?
Take 2007, for instance. Woods arrived at the PGA Championship having already won four times on the PGA Tour that year, but no major. Asked to assess his season up to that point, Woods said: “Pretty good, but not great. I just think the major championships are valued that highly.”
He won the PGA that week, then added two more victories to end the year with seven. Great season, in Woods’s opinion.
Six years later, Woods once again comes into the PGA Championship with multiple victories on the season (a tour-leading five), has reclaimed the world’s No. 1 ranking, but hasn’t won a major. His last major came at the 2008 US Open, in fact, making this the longest stretch of his career without winning one.
So, by Woods’s own lofty standards, his 2013 season has only been good, then?
“I think it’s been a great year so far,” Woods said Tuesday. “Winning five times, and you look at the quality of tournaments I’ve won, a Players [Championship] and two World Golf Championships in there.”
True, with victories at Torrey Pines, Doral, Bay Hill, TPC Sawgrass, and last week at Firestone, Woods has separated himself from almost everybody else by showing he’s capable of winning big tournaments against deep fields on great courses. He’s even been in contention at two of the first three majors this year, with a tie for fourth at the Masters and a tie for sixth at the British Open; he tied for 32d at the US Open.
It’s not to say, then, that he’s completely struggled with his game at major championships. He’s just struggled — is struggling — to win them.
“I’ve had, certainly, my share of chances to win,” Woods said. “I’ve had my opportunities there on the back nine on those — probably half of those Sundays for the last five years where I’ve had a chance, and just haven’t won it. Frustrating part is I’ve been there, and didn’t win.
“The key is to keep giving myself chances, and eventually I’ll start getting them.”
Based on his strong season, capped by a seven-shot win Sunday at the Bridgestone Invitational, Woods is the clear favorite to win the 95th PGA Championship, which starts Thursday at Oak Hill Country Club. Whether he can end the drought and win his 15th major remains to be seen, but he’s still the center of attention, especially when he’s playing at a high level, like now.
“I think Tiger is a factor no matter what. He’s been up there in majors recently, and just has not finished it off,” said Adam Scott, who won his first major at this year’s Masters, and tied for third at the British Open. “Obviously he put it all together last week at a venue he’s extremely comfortable with, so I don’t know that Tiger’s confidence is ever really down. It’s hard to imagine [that] when you’ve won 80 times or something, but he’s obviously going to be feeling good about where his game is at.”
“Do I feel good? Well, obviously I feel pretty good about winning by seven and coming here,” Woods said. “I feel like my game is pretty good. Overall, I feel very pleased with where my game is at. I’ve played well in the last two tournaments I’ve played in, especially coming off a little bit of an injury.”
Woods seems to be recovered from the elbow injury he suffered initially at the Players in May, and was in visible discomfort a month later at the US Open. That was then.
“Having him back, having him play well, having him win like he’s won this year is great for the game of golf,” said Phil Mickelson, who won the fifth major of his career three weeks ago at the British Open. “He’s playing solid and he played great last week. That just makes it exciting, because we have a number of players that can really create a lot of interest in this final major championship.”
Over the years, nobody has done that more than Woods. He’s won 14 times on the PGA Tour since winning his 14th major. It’s a number he remains stuck on, four behind the record held by Jack Nicklaus.
“It kind of seems that way,” Woods said, when asked if No. 15 is proving to be the toughest one for him to win. “It’s been probably the longest spell that I’ve had since I hadn’t won a major championship. I came out here very early and got my first one back in ’97.”
Woods tied for 39th in 2003 when the PGA was last held at Oak Hill, but he has gushed about the golf course, calling it the toughest, fairest test he’s ever played. A student of the game, he was recalling shots and tournaments held here, from Seve Ballesteros in the 1995 Ryder Cup to Shaun Micheel’s final-hole heroics from the ’03 PGA.
He’d like to join that group and become part of Oak Hill lore.
“I had a great week last week, I’ve had a couple nice days of practice,” Woods said. “A lot of things can happen, but I’m focused on this week and trying to win this one.”
That would put the seal on a great season, by anyone’s definition.Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.