At its peak, his greatness wasn’t just in being better than everyone else, but in beating them with ridiculous consistency.
When he was on his game, Woods just won by more. When majors rolled around, no one wondered about the identity of the favorite.
Gamblers would take Woods and give up the field — a ludicrous proposition in golf, except that in a stretch of 11 majors, Woods won seven, making it also a winning proposition.
Golf is different now — the past 15 majors have been won by 15 different players, nine of them first-timers — and, in part, that’s because Woods is different, too.
With Woods now 36, it’s possible he’s still evolving, reinventing himself, and that the dominating champion he once was will return.
But it’s just as conceivable that, given injuries to his knee, Achilles and psyche, he’ll have — like other golfers — good weeks and bad weeks until the end of his career.
What has been true of late is that there’s no more winning with a C-plus game. Those days are over, not just because the competition’s stiffer and doesn’t fold like it once did, but because Woods’ C-plus game isn’t what it used to be.
“If he’s playing well, he’s better than everybody else in the field. If he’s not, he’s average,” said two-time US Open champion Curtis Strange. “It just depends on which Tiger shows up.
"And we, of late, have seen two different Tigers.”
We saw two different Tigers within the span of days two weeks ago. Woods won the AT&T National on a Congressional Country Club that played more like a major than it had a year before during the US Open, only to follow up with a missed cut — only the ninth of his 16-year career — at the Greenbrier Classic.
Woods says there wasn’t much between the two performances, but if he glances back over his career, he’ll discover he never before missed a cut the week after winning. Indeed, seven times he won the very next week, too.
“If I knew the answer, I’d tell you, but I don’t,” Woods said Tuesday at Royal Lytham & St. Annes when asked about his inconsistency.
“I’ve had a few wins this year (three, most on the PGA tour), which is good, but also I’ve had a few poor performances. I’m just trying to get better, get more consistent.”
There’s that word again.
Although Woods is, as always, obsessed with his ball-striking, what’s been most inconsistent this year has been his putting. In the past, he might not hit his irons well but would rescue a round with clutch putts. Now, the putts don’t always fall.
“The reality is your golf swing is only as good as your putter,” said Paul Azinger. “And the difference between Tiger now and then is that I wouldn’t bet on him, probably, as much as I might have bet on him in the past. He’s just kind of not the same.”
What’s also different about Woods these days is that he tends to get in his own way.
At his best, he was almost Zen-like in that he’d let victory come to him. Now, especially at the majors, he reaches for it, like everyone else.
“There’s one person that’s been a little impatient about Tiger winning a major championship, and that’s Tiger himself,” said ABC television analyst Andy North.
Woods certainly became frustrated when he lost his swing at Augusta National, finishing in career-worst tie for 40th. He then uncharacteristically faded on the weekend at the US Open after holding a share of the midway lead.
“At the Open, the first two rounds, I think he played as well as I’ve seen him play in about four or five years, hitting the ball right on the button, controlling his distance, doing the things he wanted to do,” North said.
“Then he got behind the eight ball a little bit, and it looked like he got a little bit frustrated on the weekend.
“For the first time in his career, it looks like he’s maybe trying harder at major championships because he knows he desperately needs to get that first major championship win again.”
And that’s where the narrative rests with Woods.
He has shown he can win tournaments again, but what about the big ones?
When will he resume his chase of the only record that’s ever really mattered to him, Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors?
He has been stuck on 14 for four years and a month but, perhaps pointedly, responded with a calm assurance when he was asked about it on the eve of the 141st British Open.
“If I continue putting myself there enough times,” he said, “Then I’ll win major championships.”