Yes, he hasn't won a major since his 2009 fall from grace. But his win at the AT&T National this weekend shows he's the best player in the world today.
Over the past 31 months, golf fans have been asking one question over and over: When will Tiger Woods be BACK? Not back in the literal sense, of course, since he returned to competitive golf barely four months after his Thanksgiving night 2009 car crash and the subsequent dissolution of his marriage due to his serial infidelity.
Tiger's back when he wins a major, some said. He's back when he's ranked No. 1 in the world again, argued others. Despite wins at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March and the Memorial Tournament in early June, many still questioned whether Tiger had regained his dominance.
After this weekend's convincing win at the AT&T National Tournament, it's time to end the conversation. Tiger Woods is back. He's the best player in the world today. And he will be the favorite in each of the year's last two major tournaments: the British Open in three weeks and the PGA Championship in August.
Even without a major to his name since the 2008 U.S. Open, Tiger's resume this year is better than anyone's, from Masters champion Bubba Watson to U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson to Northern Ireland's wunderkind, Rory McIlroy. Tiger's won three tournaments this year, tied for the most worldwide with Branden Grace (and Grace won his trio on the less competitive European Tour). Woods was the 36-hole co-leader at the U.S. Open before faltering—at a course that was ill-suited for his game from Day 1. He shot a final-round 62 at the Honda Classic in March, the best final round of his career, to nearly overcome a nine-shot deficit and catch McIlroy. He's climbed from outside the top 50 in the world rankings in December to No. 4 in the world now, and another win this summer could vault him all the way back to the top spot. What else can he do: hole a dramatic chip shot on the 16th hole of the final round? Oh wait—he did just that at the Memorial.
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But he hasn't won a major yet, you say. The key word there is "yet." Tiger's only now putting the finishing touches on the third swing change of his career, this time with well-respected coaching guru Sean Foley. A swing in transition, even in the later stages, means days when no matter where you aim, the ball goes somewhere else. That's exactly what happened to Tiger in the third round of the U.S. Open this year, when he shot a putrid 75 and fell from a tie for first into a tie for 14th. As he grows comfortable with the swing changes, Tiger's bad days will fade—it's a good bet he won't slip from contention at a major next time.
The win at Congressional this past weekend was vintage Tiger. Down one going into the final round, Tiger picked his spots, made two birdies on the front nine, and found himself tied for the lead with unheralded American Bo Van Pelt with four holes left, both players three shots clear of third place. It was mano a mano, just the way Tiger likes it. When Van Pelt hit his approach shot to 10 feet on the 15th hole, Tiger answered with a 30-foot birdie putt to stay tied. Then Tiger simply outlasted the overmatched Van Pelt, parring the last three holes while Van Pelt bogeyed 17 and 18.
Tiger clinched the win on the final hole with a perfectly struck approach shot to a green surrounded on three sides by water. The ball landed perfectly and rolled to within 12 feet, but everyone knew the shot was perfect well before it reached the green. After he swung, Tiger stared down the shot for a half-second, twirled his club and started walking towards the green while the ball was in the air. The tournament was over—he knew it, Van Pelt knew it, and the crowd knew it.
The shot, and Tiger's reaction, brought me back to 2000, when seemingly every shot the world's greatest golfer hit was club-twirl-worthy. Woods may never reach those heights again, but that won't stop him from being golf's best, regaining the No. 1 ranking and continuing his march towards Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major wins. A day after he passed Jack on the career PGA Tour wins list with his 74th victory, it's time to acknowledge that Tiger is back on top of the golfing world.
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