Playing with a cool confidence that brought him victory in last week's TPC, Tiger Woods appears poised to regain his top form, likely to surpass Sam Snead in PGA career wins (78 / 82) and must surely be growling to get his paws on another majors-trophy (14), moving him one step closer to Jack Nicklaus' iconic mark of 18.
Tiger's "burning bright (Blake)" and on the comeback trail. Not much debate there.
A sports commentator, co-host on one of ESPN's legion of radio-TV amalgamations (like we can't get enough), the guy who looks like he knows his way around a country club or two, opinioned on Monday that Tiger "never lost it." Uh-huh, sure, buddy.
Woods never fell off the map a la John Daly, and god knows the love-struck media always kept his picture pasted up in their collective locker (the one nobody ever cleans out (Barkley)), but he definitely lost his game, the Tiger I game, that is. That was the game where he won 14 majors in the short span of 12 years, including 8 top-3 finishes.
Since his US Open triumph in '08, his last topper, the record up to 2013 had been rather spotty by Woods' standards, one of physical (08 knee / 10-11), emotional (spousal 09-10) and strategic instability (coach 10 / caddy 11).
Now he's juuust about back, a nice, long putt away. Uh oh.
He eased into the #1 ranking earlier this year like it was nobody's business. And nobody else seems to want to make it their business, not Mickelson, not McIlroy, nobody.
While there have been some special golfers alongside Woods in his career (Singh / Mickelson / Els), his lengthy and certain dominance of the PGA up to 2009 may've stymied other potential greats that would've otherwise made their marks.
Psychology is big in sport. The awareness that Woods was always on the prowl, ready to pounce on the lead and not let go caused more than a few yips amongst his competitors.
After Tiger's fall, things on the Tour loosened-up with a new face hoisting PGA hardware nearly every week. I don't think we've had a repeat winner in a major in...it seems ages. Now the field is feeling the pressure again with Tiger back in play. But there's a difference this time around. Unlike Tiger I, version II can lead early, falter late, or come on late and still come up short.
He's already won four Tour events this season (FIO / WGCC / API / TPC) and might've nabbed the Masters in April if he hadn't faltered late. And there in lay the puzzler.
Tiger Woods could be playing the best golf of his life. Not just because of his near-dominant, rejuvenated play on the course, but because of the depths from which he rose.
Rehabbing & Rebounding
The work & patience needed to recover from lingering, years long physical maladies, the survival instinct one must tap into to overcome the gut-wrenching, emotional body-blows suffered in the break-up of a marriage takes a deep well of strength and endurance just to survive. Then, to regain your top tee form, that's a tremendous and a very different success-story from the steady stream of accolades that came so surely in Tiger's halcyon days of youth.
But he's not there yet. Tiger Woods has family & friends he cares for deeply, corporate relationships he honors, but in his competitive world of golf he lives for one thing and one thing only: the majors. I take issue with that mind-set, believing the career PGA Tour wins record, held currently by Slammin' Sam, to be of equal, if not greater importance. To each his own, but until Woods figures a way to win another topper tourney he can't be considered 'back.' That's his standard, not mine.
Even if he does breakthrough that mental barrier, I think two, maybe three majors is the rosy scenario for Mr. Woods. He's young, comparatively speaking, but Jack's record won't fall, not in this era.
He came close in this year's Masters (4th) and has done as much in a handful of other majors since '08, but close only counts in horseshoes and hand-grenades. There's clearly a mental-wall in winning a major he cannot yet breach in Tiger II time.
Maybe Lindsey Vonn proves a stabilizing force in his life, giving him another rope to grab onto in making the climb. You might think her spotlight-craving persona would work against that happening but Tiger's cut from a similar cloth, more mechanical to be sure, but needing just as much attention. Birds of a feather and all that jazz.
As he doesn't need the money, it's that ego, that love of fame, the emotional high of which Vonn is all too familiar with that one rides after winning a major competition which just might keep Tiger motivated and in the game long enough to equal or best Jack's major-mark. Friends (LV) & associates (Nike) sure hope so.
ESPN's Colin Cowherd and Kurt Rambis were having a friendly debate last Thursday on LeBron v. Durant, CC taking KD, Kurt favoring the reigning MVP. Cowherd believes America loves the OKC leader because of his court-play, quirkiness and class conduct.
Colin shanked this one. He's a bright guy but also a bit of a carnival barker.
America doesn't love Kevin Durant, not yet, anyway. America loves LeBron James because America loves a winner. Until Kev hoists Mr. O'Brien he's just a curious, high-scoring, well-liked, very wealthy NBA All-Star.
America loves Tiger too, even while he's been stuck in major-neutral for good part of five years. He's got so much hardware on that mantle, so much positive press, still has enough ringing endorsements that love is almost required. It's not of the variety that was accorded the likes of Magic or Cal Ripken, but certainly more than a crush. And for plenty of people it's a full-blown, heart-felt devotion conferred upon Mr. Woods.
Woods' next chance at full fruition comes June 13-16 when the Keystone State hosts the US Open in Haverford Township at the Merion Golf Club (Ardmore).
Don't expect a Sergio-like dust-up for Woods in Pennsylvania. Those two have a history.
It takes two to tango or tangle, as it were, and Tiger can always count on a marshal for necessary cover, but Woods "should've know better" at TPC. His huge success creates tendency towards haughty-taughty and not surprisingly rubs some the wrong way. The recent trouble at Sawgrass (FL) was of little consequence to TW's game but that won't always be the result. If he wants back in the major league Woods has gotta' work harder to prevent avoidable distractions or expect to keep coming up short on the bigger stage. That goes for you too, Mr. Garcia.
The experts say Merion plays well for Woods, something about course design, straight fairways and such jargon. You might as well talk about pairings or ions in the atmosphere. Good golf is, in large part, about three things: concentration, judgment and adaptability. If Tiger Woods wants that all elusive 15th major there's just one point of play he needs to hone. He might even stitch it onto his golf glove: drive for show, putt for dough.
Then you hear the crowd roar.
Last updated: 5/21/13 @ 1:19 PM