Tiger sets his sights on Augusta

Luke Donald is:

a) the governor of a midwestern state who declined to run for president;

b) Donald Trump’s long-lost half-brother;

c) the guy who played Hawkeye in the movie version of M*A*S*H;

d) the top-ranked professional golfer in the world.

No personal offense intended to the apparently nice, 34-year-old Englishman, but the actual answer is:

e) the reason golf so desperately needs Tiger Woods to return to contention.

Donald is the No. 1 golfer in the world, according to the rankings, and if you could pick him out of a lineup give yourself a golf clap.

Also in the top ten are Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Steve Stricker, Charl Schwartzel, Justin Rose, Webb Simpson and Adam Scott. It is not just nostalgia that has the sport’s older hands pointing out that this list does not have quite the ring of Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson and Lee Trevino, the challengers to Jack Nicklaus’ supremacy in golf’s golden competitive age.

Today, the compelling figures are Woods and Phil Mickelson, with young Rory McIlroy perhaps poised to join them.

So Woods’ first PGA tour win in two and a half years, Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando, was not just good news for Tiger, who can resume his pursuit of Nicklaus’ record for most major championships at the Masters the weekend after next. It is good news for the Masters and the sport itself, which can expect the escalating interest and television ratings that Tiger used to generate as he takes on a field of challengers that is largely anonymous to the outside world.

Woods answered questions for nearly fifteen minutes at a press conference following his win at Bay Hill, but never once did he let down his guard. If you thought the Shakespearean tale that intervened between his last two tour victories would change his public persona, think again.

There was one moment in particular that seemed ripe for an endearing bit of self-deprecating humor. Someone asked him to contrast Sunday’s victory to his last tour win, at the BMW Championship in September 2009. That victory came a few weeks before he ran his car into a fire hydrant, launching a stunning fall from grace that saw his marriage dissolve and preceded a series of injuries that suspended his quest to break all of golf’s most important records.

He could have flashed that rare and famous smile and said the BMW was so long ago it was hard to remember. He didn’t, of course. Tiger doesn’t do self-deprecation.

“I guess they’re all slightly different,” he said without the hint of a smile. “I’ve had the lead before and I’ve won. The goal today with obviously the wind conditions as they were, coming out of the west, this is the toughest wind we’ve got. And I just felt that anything under par was going to be a very good score today. That was my goal, my mindset today, and after the first hole my lead went from one to three. So that certainly changes things. So now let’s just try to make a lot of pars and see what happens. Let’s make a stray birdie here and there.”

It is all about the golf for Tiger, and always has been. When he was asked whether the most difficult hurdles over those 924 winless days were mental or physical, the closest any of golf’s scribes came to referencing the dissolution of his marriage, he said it wasn’t even close.

“Oh, it’s by far the injuries, because you can’t practice,” he said. “I haven’t been able to put in the time. You can’t make a swing change and make all the adaptations we need to make unless I can practice and I haven’t been able to do that. I was sidelined most of last year — it was tough. Finally started showing signs toward the end of the year in Australia, and moving forward.”

So competitive is Woods, and so unwilling to accept even the golf world’s definition of the longest drought of his career, that he refused to acknowledge Bay Hill as his first win since everything came crashing down. Somebody asked him what he would say to those who predicted he would never win again.

“Well, it’s my second win,” Woods said, referring to the Chevron World Challenge, a charity offseason tournament he and his foundation host in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

“Officially,” replied his questioner, knowing, as Woods does, that the charity event does not count as a tour win.

“I got official world ranking points, didn’t I?” countered Woods, who fell as low as No. 58 in those rankings last fall, but has now climbed back to No. 6.

He regarded his interrogator in triumph. “You can’t win this one, can you?” he said, a wide smile creasing his face.

When questioners suggested he confirm their story lines that he needed a win, Woods rejected the narrative.

“As far as needing to win, no, you don’t need to win,” he said. “You want to win. I think that’s a misperception I think people get into. I know I have a desire to win and that’s why I enter these events, is to do that. And ultimately, this week was one of my weeks.”

Someone else suggested he’d like the Masters to start immediately, as if giddiness over Sunday’s win might be an asset. Woods shook off yet another story line.

“I still need some work,” he said. “And it’s going to be good to get a week off and work on a few things. I enjoyed the progression we made this week. Each day there was a little bit of fine tuning here and there and we were able to make those adjustments, which was good. And especially with the conditions getting more difficult all weekend, I was able to hit some really good shots the last two days. That’s a very good sign going into Augusta.”

A very good sign. Consider the confidence Woods exuded when asked toname his best shot of Sunday’s final round:

“I hit a lot of good ones today. Not one shot stood out because I hit, I thought, a boatload of good ones. I had really good control of my ball all day. I was shaping it both ways, changing my (trajectory), and it felt so comfortable. I can’t pick out one shot, sorry.”

At 36, Woods appears poised to resume his pursuit of Nicklaus on all fronts. His 72 tour wins are just one back of the Golden Bear and ten behind Sam Snead, the all-time leader. He could tie Nicklaus with a win at the Masters, but that’s not the record he’s looking for.

“Yeah, well, that’s nice, but I’m looking forward to more the green jacket part of it than tying Jack in that regard,” Woods said. “Jack’s had an amazing career and he’s won a bunch of tournaments, but also he’s won more majors than anybody else either. So I’m looking forward to my opporunities this year to . . . there’s four of them this year, and hopefully I can peak at the right time for all four of them.”

Four, of course, is Woods’ deficit to Nicklaus in majors — 18-14 — and if it sounds like he’s thinking a grand slam to tie is possible, well, he probably is. That’s Tiger.

“Good to see him back winning tournaments again,” said Graeme McDowell, the runner-up Sunday. “I think he really kind of nailed home his comeback.”

“It’s a big moment in golf and it sure sets the scene for Augusta,” said analyst Johnny Miller. “Watch out, boys on the PGA tour, Tiger is back.”

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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