Yes, Tiger Woods, take a bow. Your golf cognoscenti have awakened, and you have our complete attention.
Woods, 42, may have been something akin to a circus curiosity when the new year commenced, competing amid the uncertainty that his fused back might not hold up to the rigors of the PGA Tour. But here we are, early August, and the course of the conversation has shifted mightily. We ask not if Tiger will win again … but when.
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Barring a throwback return to dominance as he makes one last lap around the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational this week in Akron, Ohio – where Woods has won eight times – victory No. 80 (and major No. 15) potentially could await him at Bellerive Country Club and the 100th PGA Championship.
The PGA’s Wanamaker Trophy is no stranger to the Woods’ household, as four times he has held that beautiful trophy aloft. He won the PGA back-to-back in 1999-2000, then repeated the feat in 2006-2007. He last played the PGA three years ago.
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Slowly and steadily he has built up his stamina and his game, generating familiar speed and power in his swing, and rediscovering his touch around the greens. At the 147th Open Championship at Carnoustie two weeks ago, Woods even seized the lead on Sunday with eight holes to play before falling back with a double bogey/bogey sequence at Nos. 11-12. He is inching back. The last piece for the former world No. 1 would seem to be regaining complete comfort and confidence in what he is doing. He said he felt the best he has felt all season at Carnoustie, and given his close call there, and the fact that losing still stings, the belief is back.
“To be honest with you, I really felt the best I was playing was going into the Open Championship last week,” Woods said Wednesday morning in Akron. “I was really playing well. I played well at the National (Quicken Loans, his own event at TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm), but also my practice sessions were very good. So I knew that if I executed my game plan, I was going to be in contention, which I did. Unfortunately, I just didn’t win.”
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Woods has been striking the ball crisper since he missed the cut at the U.S. Open in June, and a switch in putters (he has gone to a mallet) has boosted his confidence on the greens. (“I’ve started to make some putts,” he said.) Now it’s simply a question of being there for 72 holes of championship golf. With today’s depths of field, one cannot take any holes off and still expect to prevail.
Woods’ tie for sixth at Carnoustie marked his fourth top-10 finish of the season, which has included spirited Sunday runs up the leaderboard at Valspar (second) and the Arnold Palmer Invitational (T-5). Having been ranked No. 1,199 in the world nine months ago at the Hero World Challenge, Woods has climbed all the way to 50th, which gave him a bonus start in Akron.
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In addition to PGA victories at Medinah No. 3 (twice), Valhalla and Southern Hills, Woods has four other top-10 finishes at the championship. His last top 10 was in 2009 when he lost a Sunday shootout with South Korea’s Y.E. Yang at Hazeltine National in Minneapolis. It was the only time in his career that Woods failed to close out a 54-hole lead in a major championship. Woods missed the cut in his last two PGA starts, in 2014 (Valhalla) and 2015 (Whistling Straits).
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Woods’ 19th PGA start will be a nice bonus for the golf fans of St. Louis, who twice have missed out on watching the best player of this generation. Woods was on the grounds at Bellerive and played a practice round alongside Mark Calcavecchia at the WGC-American Express Championship on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He was informed during his round that two planes had been flown into New York’s Twin Towers. The PGA Tour at first announced that it would delay the start of the tournament for a day, then canceled it altogether.
Woods got into his courtesy car and made the 17-hour drive from St. Louis to Orlando, Florida, where he was residing at the time. His extended time in the car and what was happening in our world at the time had a profound impact on him.
“I had a lot of reflecting to do during that time,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I changed my foundation (Tiger Woods Foundation) from a golf-based foundation to an educational-based foundation, because of what happened with the (Twin) Towers.”
The last time the PGA Tour visited Bellerive, in 2008 (for the BMW Championship), Woods was recovering from knee surgery after winning the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines’ South Course a few months earlier.