For well over a year, with each of Tiger’s six victories in the last two years, friends, readers and acquaintances would ask, “Do you think Tiger is back?
Well, I kept pulling the “yes” lever and maybe a touch too soon. I remember him shooting 65 in the first round of the 2010 Barclays and pronouncing him back. More recently, he shot 64 in the first round of the 2012 Deutsche Bank and that was after his third win of the year.
It just seemed like all the old talent that we had come to admire kept flashing up, but even after those first three wins, people were still equivocal about whether he was back, “Do you think he’ll ever win another major?”
And then, this year he won the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral and just this week, the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill by two strokes over Justin Rose. He’s entered five tournaments this year and won three of them. He played with Rickie Fowler on Monday and Fowler had nothing but superlatives to offer:
Yeah, definitely this year he looks a lot more comfortable out there. He doesn’t really miss many shots. And if he does, it’s not by a whole lot. So he’s swinging well, looks comfortable out there…
He’s playing well. You know when another guy is playing well and he’s on top of his game, he’s got a little something. But like I said, I felt really good out there, felt really comfortable today. It was fun to get after him a little bit, and just wish it could have been a little more coming down the last couple holes…
I mean, he’s a great player. Even if he does make a bad swing here and there, he’s going to find a way to have a look at par. He’s not going to give shots away. So he’s tough to beat in that way. I mean, he’s going to get the ball up‑and‑down. He’s not going to give shots away. You have to gain shots on him by making birdies. Yeah, he’s a tough competitor…
On 12, Fowler made birdie from 38 feet. Tiger topped him from 27 feet:
I’m expecting him to make putts. I mean, you saw on the last hole [where he hit a 74-footer to 2 inches], doesn’t matter how long it is, you’ve got to expect him to at least give it a shot. [On 12], I hit a perfect putt there, and it ended up going in, and I figured there was a pretty good chance that his was going in. That was kind of the start of things kind of kicking up…
He’s putting well. He hit a lot of good putts out there, a couple that didn’t go in, and he made some good putts as well. But no, that’s just the competitor he is. He’s going to find a way to make a putt or kind of keep things going…
And Justin Rose, who finished 2nd, was no less effusive when talking about how hard it is to catch Tiger when he’s the frontrunner:
I think he plays every shot like he plays them on Sunday. His intensity is the same on Thursday often as it is on Sunday, and that makes Sunday a lot less different for him. He plays in that kind of atmosphere far more regularly than a lot of guys do, and it’s adjustment for most of us. It’s a known for him.
Obviously, he’s been doing it for 15 years now, so he certainly has a lot of skills and a lot of experience under his belt.
But, basically, it’s his execution, his commitment to the shots, and he’s always drawing up what he intends to do. That’s why he gets frustrated at times because he’s always looking at hitting the right shot at the right time.
And Rose commenting on whether playing with Tiger now is reminiscent of playing with him back in his glory days:
Obviously, I really enjoyed my first two rounds playing with him. I thought it brought the best out of me at times, But frustrated with myself yesterday because I wanted to be a part of the last group [Sunday, the honor going to Fowler].
So you’ve got to take the challenge on. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, but you can’t shy away from it, too. I think the more times you can put yourself — it’s like what makes him so good is he’s been in contention so much, the more times you play with him down the stretch, the easier that becomes for you. So you’ve got to take that challenge on when you can.
And how does Rose compare the shots Tiger hit in those first two rounds with where he was a couple of years ago?
Yeah, I would say iron play and putting is looking fantastic, absolutely. He can tune‑up a couple areas of his game. But when he’s got mid‑iron in his hand, there is nobody better by the looks of it. Quality of ball strike is back.
I thought on Friday, he could have shot 65; he shot 70. That was the day he let the round slip. But that just shows he’s able to get those quality shots to go low again [on Saturday with a 66].
And as for Tiger himself, he contrasted where he is now with where he was in 2011 when he began his physical rehab to get back to this place:
Well, I had to look at it. If I get healthy, I know I can play this game at a high level. 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. That was the first step in the process. Once I got there, then my game turned. I’ve won six times on the Tour in the last couple years, so that’s not bad [and, uh, who else has won six times in the last two years? Nobody!]
But he didn’t quite have it in last year’s majors, wasn’t where he is now. What’s different?
I’ve gotten so much better since those events, and I’ve cleaned up a lot of different things in my game, and I’m very pleased with where it’s come along.
I’ve turned some of the weaknesses that I had last year into strengths. I’m really excited about the rest of this year. As I said, the very beginning of the year I was excited because of how the end of last year turned out.
My short game game‑wise came around, I thought my swing was getting better, my short irons got better. Lo and behold, I won a few tournaments this year.
And what about winning back-to-back tournaments, the WGC-Cadillac Championship in Miami and now Bay Hill?
I think it shows that my game’s consistent. It’s at a high level, and I think you’re not going to play well each and every day. I know that, we all know that. But it’s getting the little things out of each round. To win back‑to‑back weeks or like I’ve won I think six times in a row before. You’re not going to play well each and every day. And you’re not going to play well every week.
But you’ve got to grind it out and get those rounds in, and that is something that I’ve done. I’ve turned rounds that should be 1 or 2‑over to under‑par rounds and that’s allowed me to go ahead and win golf tournaments.
And as good as he is right now, he still thinks he can get better [frightening to the rest of the boys, I’d imagine]:
I’m getting there. I’m getting there. I’m very pleased that some of the shots that I struggled with last year are now strengths. You know, one of the things that we need to continue to work on is getting it more refined. Because my good ones are really good. Just making sure the bad ones aren’t that bad, whether it’s a driver, 3‑wood, long‑iron, wedge, whatever it is, that I’m missing the ball in the correct spots. That’s getting way better. Still continue to improve and clean up my short game.
This from a man who manhandled a great field of competitors on a really hard golf course on a really blustery day to play golf.
I think my best ball‑striking tournament [over] the last couple years was probably Torrey this year. Just how I hit the golf ball, not each and every day, but over a period of time it’s been years since I’ve hit the ball this consistently day‑in and day‑out: the “flushness,” the trajectory, the spin control, hitting my numbers. Especially when it’s howling like this, you have to hit the ball with the correct trajectory or it’s just going to get slammed
What hope is there for the rest of them? He’s this good and he’s still trying to get better? And he’s being successful at it?
And this is just one example from today’s final round to provide a sense of just how refined he already has his game:
Just continue working on the short game. Continue working on that, continue getting my spins under control and being able to spin the ball right or spin the ball to the left.
There were a few shots out there that I was excited about that I played. I hit a little shot on 14 today. It was up the hill, but I put a little bit of a draw spin on that little shot to hold it against the hill to try to kill it against that grain. To pull off a shot like that when I really need it, it feels pretty sweet.
And so the Tiger watch goes on. And we now know it goes on at a level so high, it’s almost unimaginable — draw spin against the grain, really?
And it goes on with the indefatigable effort of a man who won’t just settle for anything but his very best.
It’s an exciting and inspiring time in big-time professional golf again.