Tiger's next hurdle: winning a major
Your correspondent has emphatically said for years that golf performance should not be evaluated by 10-minute intervals. That notion tends to get lost in these days of Internet immediacy, in these days of the hole-by-hole Tiger Tracker, when one hole of tweeted play-by-play carries too much word weight and lacks big-picture perspective.
Yes, Tiger Woods visited some ice plant after a hooked drive and went 4-over par on Nos. 14-17 on Monday at the Farmers Insurance Open. There’s your little snippet, devoid of context.
The big picture is this: Woods had built an eight-stroke lead, the sign of rare command, and won by four strokes. Had, say, Rickie Fowler won by four, some probably would have annointed him as the Next Whatever.
Woods wins by four and critics focus on his sloppy, impatient, anticlimactic play down an overly slow stretch. Please. Let’s focus on what did matter (the eight-shot cushion) and not on what didn’t.
“He said he got frustrated and lost his patience and concentration when it got slow,” said Sean Foley, Woods’ instructor since summer 2010. “You can be Ben Hogan, but if you lose all three of those, you’re not going to play well.”
If you want the truth about Woods’ game, look at his past four PGA Tour victories, not those four holes. The biggest takeaway from his eighth Tour victory at Torrey Pines was this: Woods has now won four of his past 16 Tour starts.
That focuses on the past 10 months, not the past 10 minutes.
That 4-of-16 stretch, of course, follows a victory drought of about 30 months, a dry spell that coincided with all those expensive personal problems he brought upon himself. The 4-of-16 is significant because it suggests Woods has become a Woods we recognize. It suggests he has transitioned from the emotional (personal life) and mechanical (new swing) mess he often was in 2010-11.
The 4-of-16 is in line with his career tendency, for he has won 27 percent of his Tour starts.
That would seem to answer the question of whether Tiger Woods is back. The answer would seem to be this: It appears so.
He’s certainly back to becoming a familiar figure. He’s certainly back in the conversation about breaking Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major-championship victories. First, though, the legend in focus is Sam Snead. And while we’re on the subject, clearly it will be easier for Woods to pass Snead than Nicklaus, for Woods’ 75 Tour titles trails the Slammer by only seven.
Woods’ primary next hurdle, though, is to re-establish himself on major weekends. He used to own weekends more than Bernie ever did. Lately they have owned him. Last year, when he co-led twice midway, he shot 146, 148, 143 and 146 on major weekends.
Psychologists can chalk that up to swing-transition issues or Nicklaus record pressure. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it happened and he needs to fix it.
It’s highly improbable that Woods, at 37, will ever resemble the dominator of 2000 or the pre-scandal player who won 51 percent of his Tour starts from July 2006 to that day he hit the fire hydrant.
That said, he just ran off to an eight-shot lead, a feat probably only he and Rory McIlroy are capable of. Most significant is the way he ran away. He did so hitting driver after driver, again with confidence.
It seemed he has played away from the big stick the last few years. At Torrey, where his ballstriking and short game were superb, he clearly embraced it.
“He hit drive over and over and got in a groove,” Foley said. “That became a huge advantage.”
The numbers indicate why Woods was loving it. He not only ranked eighth in driving distance, he tied for 17th in driving accuracy. Throw in excellent putting (T-11) and you have easy victory.
All those numbers pleased Foley, who like Woods’ past two instructors, Butch Harmon and Hank Haney, can’t help but notice that pundits nitpick while holding Woods to a far different standard.
“Because he didn’t push the eight-shot lead, people come up with conspiracy theories that he doesn’t have what (dominance) he had in 2000,” Foley said. “I don’t care what he did the last day. To keep that level for four days is hard.”
Foley, too, has bristled at 2012 suggestions that Woods has lost his nerve around the greens — particularly with regard to putts in the 5- to 8-foot range, putts he seemed to routinely make a few years ago.
“People said his nerves were gone last year,” Foley said. “Did anyone stop to think that maybe he didn’t practice it as much (as the new full swing)? He dedicated time to it after Christmas, maybe 3-4 hours a day, and his feel and confidence came back. He’s proving people wrong.”
So it will be interesting to see where Woods goes from here, and how his performance stacks up against that of McIlroy, this year and for a few calendars to come.
At the moment, it appears Woods is rising.
“I think he’s still climbing, and he’s trying to understand his system,” Foley said. “It’s starting to have a lot less cognition. He’s a lot more quiet because of rhythm and alignment.”
His swing might be quiet, but he’s making familiar noise with it again.