With two weeks to go before the year’s last major, Tiger Woods won his fourth tournament of the year. Please don’t take it as proof that the world’s greatest golfer is totally back.
He’s not, and it was obvious watching him visit all the nooks and crannies of the Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club. His driving was so erratic you’d swear he was texting during his swings. He couldn’t find a fairway with two guides and a GPS. He even hit one in the water. And still his lead grew.
If he plays like this two weeks from now at Hazeltine in the PGA Championship, Woods will be in the same situation he was at during the British Open — on his private plane and flying home after missing the cut.
The only reason he won on a user-friendly course was because nobody else in the field had the cashews to stare him in the eye and do anything other than wet their pants and go running for their mommies.
The win, which had all the drama of a North Korean election, was Tiger’s fourth this year and 69th of his career. That’s double the number of wins of anyone else on tour this year, and Woods has played in just 11 tournaments. So you can’t say Woods is having a bad year coming off the knee surgery that sidelined him for eight months.
Heck, most of the guys who’ve ever snagged a Tour card haven’t won four tournaments in their careers, much less one season.
But by Tiger’s standards, his year so far has been a disappointment because it lacks a major. A year without a major is to Tiger like a year without a seven-figure bonus to a bank executive. It’s reason to drape the house in purple and spend the holidays listening to dirges.
Tiger’s intention is to win every time he tees it up. But it’s the majors he cares about. He’s got 14 of them and needs four more to tie Jack Nicklaus’ record. Until Woods surpasses the Golden Bear, he cannot be called the greatest golfer ever. His fans may not understand that, but he sure does; he says so all the time. So while getting to within four wins of Nicklaus’ mark of 73 Tour wins 13 of Sam Snead’s all-time record of 82 titles is nice, it’s not what Woods is shooting for.
He’ll take it, even if the win was hardly the stuff of legend. It wasn’t even the stuff of legendary chokes on the part of the people chasing him.
Take Michael Letzig, who could have gone into the final round with a one-stroke lead over Tiger. Letzig showed why he’s never won a tournament by starting his Sunday choke early. On the 18th hole on Saturday, when a par would have given him the Sunday lead, he chalked up a double bogey, ensuring he’d start Sunday one stroke back. Once he saw Tiger, his day was over.
Woods did very little with his lead, making just three birdies on a ho-hum day. But nobody else even bothered to try to chase him down. Like little kids on the playground who’ve been beaten up for years, they handed over their lunch money without an argument the instant they saw him.
It’s easy to watch him on days like this and conclude he’s all the way back and he’s unbeatable.
But that’s nonsense. If you watched the Buick Open it was obvious why. Warwick Hills is not a U.S. Open or PGA Championship course. It’s possible to make up strokes — lots of strokes — on a cozy little club that’s made for bombs-away golf. But nobody with a chance to catch Woods did.
It’s as if they came to the course, saw Tiger’s name on top the leaderboard, and started checking out how much money second place paid.
Tiger is now 36-1 when he goes into Sunday with the solo lead. The only time he didn’t win in such a situation was 13 years ago. A lot of that is his incredible ability to focus on the task at hand when the pressure is highest and not succumb to the pressure.
But you also have to give discredit where it is due, and that’s to every one of the scores of players who have had a chance to put a number up for him to match and failed to do it.
Tiger won’t get such an accommodating field in two weeks. The planet's best golfers will be at the PGA, and if there’s one thing they’ve noticed this year it’s that Tiger does not have his major-tournament game together. He’s got his Tour game running just fine, but he’s not driving it straight enough or putting consistently enough to win that 15th major.
That can change in one week. We all know that. We’ve seen it often enough before during a career unlike any other forged by a golfer unlike any other.
But it’s not going to change because a writer or commentator watched him hack it around Michigan and pronounced him back. We’ve tried that three times already this year, because that’s how many times Tiger won a tournament going into a major. We were wrong every time.
The only way it changes is when Woods proves it at a major.
His last chance to do that this year is in two weeks in Minnesota. Don’t bother telling him, though. He knows it.