For Tiger Woods, next month’s Masters can’t come soon enough.
Despite his current world No. 2 ranking, he is once again the best player in the world and the deserved Augusta favorite after a commanding two-shot victory in the WGC-Cadillac Championship on a humid, blustery Sunday afternoon in southern Florida.
“Augusta’s still four weeks away but, yes, this is the best I’ve seen him over 72 holes in the 16 months I’ve been with him,” said Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava.
If he wins his last start before the Masters in two weeks at Bay Hill — where he’ll be the defending champion at an event he has won seven times — he’ll reclaim the No. 1 ranking he last held in October 2010.
It’s a resurrection that hasn’t escaped the notice of the pretenders to this throne.
Keegan Bradley wrote on Twitter that “The GOAT was at it again. Nice win TW.” Steve Stricker, the runner-up at Doral, declared that Woods — who has won five of his past 19 PGA Tour events, a winning ratio right at his career mark of 27 percent — was back and as good as ever.
“His attitude and what I saw this week, his belief in himself again, looks very similar to when he was in the early 2000s, or you can pick any year, I guess, when he was playing great,” Stricker said.
“He just seems in a better place, mentally, to me. He seems to be having fun.”
Winning, of course, is fun.
“I’m playing better, so it’s not like I’m going out there and struggling to break 80,” Woods said. “I’m probably in a better spirit because I’m making more putts.”
Although his triumph at Doral — his first in a World Golf Championship event since before his 2009 scandal — was built on a career-low 100 putts, LaCava said, “All facets of his game were on.”
He was more in control of his tee shots than he’s been in years, his iron play was not just sharp, but — as it was at his peak — creative, and he didn’t look like beating himself, as he’s been wont to do since ’09.
“He doesn’t have those kind of off-the-radar balls anymore,” said Graeme McDowell, who played alongside Woods in the final two rounds.
“In ’10, ’11 when I was playing with him, he would hit the odd shot where you just would kind of blink twice and go, ‘Really, that’s wide.’
“In this wind the last couple days, his ball flight control was pretty stunning (and) his short game and putting was very impressive.”
Woods, who has four green jackets, hasn’t won at Augusta since 2005.
Significantly, it has been his putter that has most held him back.
But a lesson from Stricker the night before the first round at Doral had him draining putts like he did in his prime.
“I would like to say I probably would have,” said Woods when asked if he would have fixed his putting without Stricker’s intervention. “But . . . there’s a ‘but’ there.”
Meanwhile, Woods’ coach, Sean Foley, said we have yet to see the best of his prized pupil.
“There is always growth,” he said. “Tiger’s focus isn’t, and has never been, success. It’s all about improvement, and that’s an admirable quality.”
Certainly, Woods seems finally at a point where he’s thinking less about mechanics when he plays. The endless rehearsal swings are gone and his confidence in what he’s doing is obvious as he hits different shapes at different trajectories.
“It’s more not playing by position; it’s more playing by certain feels,” Woods said of the evolution. “That’s a big change, because, obviously, look at where I was a few years ago to where I’m at now.
“And especially on the fly out there, to make the adjustments that I need to make, where if I don’t quite hit one just right, I know exactly what to do to fix it.
“That’s the biggest thing that I didn’t really understand sometimes.”
What he also understands is that as historic as it is to win 76 times on the PGA Tour — eight years ahead of the pace of the only man who has won more, Sam Snead (82) — the history that really matters is the resumption of his chase of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors.
Woods, who has been stuck on 14 majors for almost five years, has won majors six of the seven times he has begun a season with multiple victories ahead of the Masters. Woods also won the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in January.
Although he usually speaks guardedly of such things, he conceded in the Sunday night glow of this victory that he felt this year will be a good one.
“I felt that towards the end of last year,” he said. “I look at the venues that I won last year, all three very good golf courses, and I think winning at Torrey and then winning here, my five wins have come on some pretty tough tracks.
“That gave me so much confidence heading into the offseason that I was heading in the right direction.”