Tiger is No. 1 again, and he knows it

March 25, 2013

He’s back.

Eight-hundred-and-seventy-seven days after his reign ended and he was banished to rankings exile — to the pit of No. 58 — Tiger Woods has reclaimed his throne.

On a sun-splashed Monday afternoon, Woods won the Arnold Palmer Invitational for a record eighth time and in so doing deposed Rory McIlroy to regain the No. 1 ranking he lost in October 2010.

“No. 1 !!!!!!!!!!!!!,” tweeted skier Lindsey Vonn, Woods’ girlfriend.

Yes, she used 13 exclamation points. Don't believe it? Check it out.


And it just may be that her man deserves every one of them because climbing back to the top from the abyss of scandal, divorce, injury and a broken golf game has been one of the greatest achievements of his career.

“It feels good right now,” said Woods.

And why wouldn’t it?

He now has three victories this season and six in 19 PGA Tour stroke play events dating back a year, representing a higher winning percentage than his career average of 27 percent.

He’s once again intimidating rivals, his ball-striking is as good as it’s been “in years,” and putting is again his ace in the hole, as he showed on Monday by trumping a 37 footer by Rickie Fowler with his own 28 footer to remind everyone how the story was going to end.

“That was huge,” said Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava.

“You don’t think Rickie’s going to make that putt and Tiger’s wasn’t easy. I don’t know if it was the key to the day but it was huge.

“It was the Tiger of old.”

Yet there will be those who won’t consider that the Tiger of old has been resurrected until Woods wins a major.

I don’t think that they will have to wait long; it will happen soon, perhaps as soon as the Masters.

He’s back not because I think he is, but because he does.

“I know I can play this game at a high level,” he said on Monday.

“I know I can be where I’m contending in every event, contending in major championships and being consistent day-in and day-out . . . if I got healthy.”

Woods has spent the past two-and-a-half years telling us that he’s just doing what he’s done twice before in his career: tearing down his golf game and rebuilding it to be better.

He has protested week after week that such a process takes time and patience and that injuries have slowed his progress.

But, frankly, who really believed him?

Who didn’t think he was just making excuses to avoid an unpalatable truth: that we’d seen the best of him?

And given the deconstruction of his life after the scandal of November 2009, was it not too simplistic to believe that just a swing evolution kept Woods from winning a tournament for 30 months?

Surely there were deeper reasons, beginning with the battering his self-belief took in the wake of the humiliation he felt as the world came to know the sordid details of his adulterous double life?

I’d always thought that the psychological scars manifested themselves in his putting.

Woods had built his legend on making the crucial putts and the crucial times, on never choking. But for 30 months, he was like everyone else, hoping they’d fall and dropping his chin into his chest when they didn’t.

But maybe we just made it all too complicated?

As I watched Woods so confidently take apart Bay Hill – his demeanor, be sure, was that of the old Tiger – I remembered something that his estranged coach Hank Haney used to say.

That Woods gets all his confidence from his ball-striking.

And through this prism, the past 30 months makes sense and what’s happening now does, too.

Maybe it’s no coincidence that when he hits the shots he wants, shaping them at the trajectories he sees, everything else falls into place, from chipping to putting.

Maybe his failure in the four majors last year can be best explained by the fact that Woods didn’t think he was ready in 2012?

“I felt like maybe my game wasn’t quite consistent enough,” he said. “I’ve gotten so much better since. I’ve cleaned up a lot of different things in my game. I’ve turned weaknesses into strengths.

“I’m really excited about the rest of this year.”

After he’d won Doral using a predominantly left-to-right tee shot, I asked Woods when he’d be wheeling out the heavy artillery – the push-draw I watch him hit prodigious distances on the driving range?

As is his wont, he didn’t really answer but on Monday, he revealed his blueprint for such things.

“You’ve got to be able to do it at home first, that’s where it all starts,” he said.

“Then it feeds into coming out here and doing it on a Thursday, Friday and maybe a Saturday afternoon.

“And then ultimately down the stretch on Sunday.

“Then, you’ve got to do it at a major championship.

“That process has been evolving and you can see the stepping stones.

“You can see it throughout my career when I’ve made changes . . . the incremental progress that I’ve made.

“Then, eventually, I get to a point where I start winning golf tournaments.”

And lots of them.