Tiger returns to the hunt: Critics were a little too hasty in writing off Woods after some substandard seasons
My column from today's PGA Championship supplement in the National Post
Tuesday, August 9, 2005
Robert Thompson On Golf
Tiger Woods is back. There can be no doubt about it. But is the current incarnation as good as the one that dominated golf in 2000, winning seven times, including both the British and U.S. Opens?
His success this year -- wins at both the Masters and British Open, as well as at two other tournaments -- seems to suggest the answer is yes. While golf pundits started the year talking about the so-called "Big Four," which included Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh, heading into golf's fourth major the talk is all about No. 1 -- Tiger Woods.
Not that it has been a cakewalk for Woods. He's continued to struggle with his driver all year, a factor that might hold him back at Baltusrol, site of this year's PGA Championship. Of course, this is nothing new. There's been a lot of talk about Woods' abilities with a 1-wood in his hands since having knee surgery at the end of 2002.
While he won immediately after returning in early 2003, Woods apparently came to the realization that he would have to make some changes to compensate for the damage done to his knee. The swing that took him to the career Grand Slam in record fashion, crafted carefully by mentor Butch Harmon, would have to go.
Harmon would also get the boot, and Woods would struggle for much of 2004.
He emerged with a new swing coach -- Hank Haney, Mark O'Meara's instructor -- and began deconstructing his game.
"It was like Michelangelo going back to chisel a more impressive six-pack on David," said Jaime Diaz of Golf Digest.
Despite the overhaul, last year Woods won only once, leading Monday morning swing critics to say Woods had made a mistake in altering such a good thing. Woods insisted he was getting closer to the form from his remarkable run in 2001. No one really believed him.
His opening round at the Masters this year, where he shot 74 and putted a ball off a green and into the water, led more to say Woods was not the player he had once been. Those who had been quietly critical in the past were suddenly more vocal. Tiger, they said, had lost it.
He would silence them with two days of rounds in the 60s and a final-day duel with Chris DiMarco that he'd win in extra holes.
Although he narrowly missed winning the U.S. Open, finishing second to surging winner Michael Campbell, a resurgent Tiger headed to St. Andrews, the sight of his dramatic British Open win in 2000.
Hardly anyone was surprised when Woods disposed of his competitors and won by five strokes. He was on a hot streak -- and a hot streak by Tiger Woods is unlike anything else in golf.
Suddenly, Woods is once again the most dominant player in golf. Just as in 2000, his supposed chief rivals -- Singh, who is having another strong year in regular tournaments, and Els and Mickelson, who have both been relatively quiet -- have yet to prove they are able to beat Woods in a head-on duel. None of the three have been factors in Woods' two major victories this year.
Tiger's return to dominance coincides with his return to hitting the ball astonishing distances off the tee this year. His tee shots are averaging 312 yards this year, the second longest on tour. He's playing Nike's new driver and, in a change of pace, armed it with a graphite shaft. The combination has once again made Woods the foremost long hitter on tour.
He still doesn't hit a lot of fairways, even with the new technology. Woods ranks an abysmal 170th in driving accuracy, hitting fairways only 57% of the time.
That wasn't an issue at St. Andrews, where Woods' prodigious distance was helped by the course's wide and forgiving fairways. It also wasn't a problem at the Masters, where the rough is still tame and the nature of the course allowed Woods to recover when his driver went awry.
But Baltusrol, a traditional parkland layout, could be tougher for Woods, especially if he's having a difficult time finding fairways.
Still, his remarkable power off the tee will also put short irons in his hand on many holes. Woods seems to be aware that his chances at Baltusrol are pretty strong.
"Well, like any other PGA, it will be fair," he said following his win at the British Open. "The rough will be up, but at least it will be fair. Greens will be quick but they won't be over the top. The PGA, over the years that I've played, has certainly been very fair. They are set up stern but fair. I think that's why we all love playing that championship, because they never go over the edge."
So how good has Tiger Woods been this year? He leads the money list with more than US$6-million in earnings. And, despite missing his first cut since 1997, he's come within a couple of putts of winning all three majors. He handily won two.
The naysayers who said Woods would never rebound have been drowned out among those trying to gush out accolades about his remarkable performance this year. While he may have started the year in a cloud of uncertainty, no one would be surprised if he adds Baltusrol and the PGA Championship to his growing legend.