Casey Martin summed it up best. After a Tuesday practice round at The Olympic Club with his old Stanford teammate, Martin, the current golf coach at Oregon (and only golfer to have a Supreme Court decision named after him) said, "I get to go see all the top players coming up and watch them when they’re young. No disrespect to anybody I’ve seen, but there is no one even close that was like Tiger."
Martin should know. He saw Tiger as a junior and as a collegian and then as a fellow tour player during the 1998 - 2002 stretch when Tiger did things no one dreamed possible in the game. And very few people would argue with Martin's assessment. No golfer in his 20s comes close to the kind of career Tiger had when he was their age. And no junior golfer can touch the kind of dominance Tiger had when he was kid.
But all that is history. This week is about the here and now. And as we prepare for the first tee shot of the 112th U.S. Open, the question remains: is the Tiger Woods of today the same golfer that he was 10 years ago?
The reflexive answer is no, but that response isn’t as cut and dried as it was at the beginning of the season when Tiger was still struggling with swing changes that nobody understood and still battling the aches and pains of this injury or that.
His supporters will point to his two wins at Bay Hill and Muirfield Village against some of the strongest fields of the year and to his stats: No.1 in total driving, ball striking, birdies on par-threes, and putts made from 20 to 25 feet, and No.7 overall in greens hit in regulation. They will point to the Sunday 62 he shot at the Honda Classic to climb into second place, and the birdie-par-birdie finish at Jack's Memorial Tournament, a stretch that included the shot of the year so far: a flop shot from high rough that trundled into the hole.
Those are all valid points and serviceable reasons why Tiger is the favorite to win his 15th major championship this week.
But his detractors have some good points as well. When he got into contention at the AT&T at Pebble Beach, a course he has owned over the years, Tiger shot a final-round 75 playing head-to-head with Phil Mickelson, as he will be doing the first two days at Olympic. Then, immediately following his 62 at the Honda, he withdrew from the WGC event at Doral citing a booboo on his Achilles tendon.
He followed up the win at Bay Hill with a T40 finish at the Masters, a missed cut in Charlotte, and another T40 at The Players Championship: not typical Tiger post-win performances, and certainly nothing you could point to as a reason he will win this week.
If coming in with a "hot hand" is your rationale for picking a favorite, then Jason Dufner would have to be your man. He also has two wins and a second, but they have come in his last four starts. He hits more greens than Tiger and has played better on Thursdays and Fridays than any player on tour all year. Yet, Dufner is not part of any marquee pairing, nor is he generating much buzz.
Tiger's practice round with Casey Martin attracted thousands of fans and scores of photographers – his pre-tournament press conference watched by millions. Dufner and Hunter Mahan (the only other player with two PGA Tour wins this year) warmed up to Olympic with only smattering of fans walking every step, their shots greeted with polite applause once standard in golf in the pre-Tiger era.
Tiger could very well turn his major championship fortunes around this week. Certainly his ball striking is as good as it has been in several years and the swagger seems to have returned after The Memorial.
But the golf world is a much different place now than it was when a pre-major victory for Tiger could be viewed as a prelude to another dominating performance.
"The reality is without Tiger in the mix, it's opened up opportunities for other guys to get in there and get themselves a major championship," PGA Champion and Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger said. "It's a return, really, to when Curtis (Strange) and I were playing. It was deemed there were no real dominant players. As much as Greg Norman stayed on top of the world rankings, there were several patches where there was a different winner at every major."
Tiger is no longer the longest driver on tour (that title goes to Bubba Watson), nor is he the best putter. Aaron Baddeley, Luke Donald, Phil Mickelson, Zach Johnson and a host of others gain more shots with the flat stick than Tiger.
But he is still the rumbling giant, the man whose every birdie can cause the earth to tremble and the hills of San Francisco to reverberate with a deafening roar.
He might not win, or even contend. But for the first time in several major championship starts, nobody is counting him out. And you can bet that everyone – player and fan like – will keep an eye on the leaderboard, and stand a little straighter when the name Tiger Woods appears somewhere near the top.