- Last Updated: 4:48 AM, July 15, 2012
- Posted: 11:54 PM, July 14, 2012
With the British Open upon us this week, this is all that matters in golf at the moment: Is Tiger Woods back?
* Woods is the only player on the PGA Tour with three wins this year.
* He leads the PGA Tour money list and is atop the FedEx Cup standings for the first time since September 2009.
* He has risen to the No. 4 ranking in the in the world, though no one would bet against him up against the three players ahead of him (Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood)
* And, by all accounts from those closest to him (his coach Sean Foley and his caddie Joe LaCava), he is striking the ball better than he has in years.
Despite what the far-too-complicated World Golf Rankings say, few would argue that Woods is not the best player in the world right now.
That is admirable, given the career-long winless drought he brought into 2012 and the personal scandal from which he has had to distance himself. But the reality is this: Woods cannot consider himself truly back until he wins another major championship.
He might scoff at this notion publicly, but if he is honest with himself, he will recall the Jack Nicklaus poster that hung on his bedroom wall as he spent his childhood dreaming of breaking the Golden Bear’s record of 18 majors.
Woods has been stuck on
14 since his last win more than four years ago, and the pursuit of
No. 15 begins again at this week’s British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, where he finished 22nd in 1996 and 25th in 2001.
The last of Woods’ three British Open wins came in 2006, when he dissected Royal Liverpool like a skilled surgeon.
The way Woods has been hitting the ball and deftly maneuvering it around — most particularly in those first two rounds in the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club — you get the feeling that he can game-plan his way around Lytham and its minefield of bunkering the way he did when he won at Hoylake in 2006. But there have been quirks of inconsistency.
When Woods won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, many were immediately anointing him the next Masters champion in April. But he finished a career-worst 40th at Augusta.
Woods missed the cut at the Wells Fargo Championship in May and quickly followed that with a win at the Memorial in June, a victory that increased the buzz for a Woods U.S. Open win. But after a terrific first two rounds, he fizzled (mostly with the putter) during the weekend and finished miles from contention.
Then came a win at the AT&T National two weeks after Olympic, raising expectations for the British. But that was followed by a curious missed cut at the Greenbrier Classic two weeks ago. The last time Woods, who missed just nine PGA Tour cuts in his entire career, failed to make it to the weekend twice in one year was in 2005.
“If he’s playing well, he’s better than everybody else in the field,’’ ESPN analyst Curtis Strange said. “If he’s not, he’s average. It just depends on which Tiger shows up. And of late, we have seen two different Tigers. Is he going to play like he did in 2000, 2001? No. But if shows up and plays well, he’s still better than everybody else.’’
ESPN analyst Andy North said he believes “there’s one person that’s been a little impatient about Tiger winning a major championship, and that’s Tiger himself.’’
North noted visible frustration from Woods at both Augusta and Olympic Club. Woods, when he was at his best, never let anyone see him sweat.
“I think for the first time in his career it looks like he’s maybe trying harder at major championships because he knows he desperately needs to get that first major championship win again,’’ North said. “We’ll see how he handles [this] week.’’
ESPN analyst Paul Azinger said Woods was so good in his prime that it got to the point “we didn’t even look at Tiger as human anymore.’’
“But he still feels the pressure like everybody else,’’ Azinger said.
“We’re all human,’’ Woods said.
The past 15 majors have been won by 15 different players. Woods would like to make that 16 different winners in the last 16 majors by week’s end. If that happens, only then will we, and Tiger, know he truly is back.