Tiger Woods marched up the 18th fairway at Doral on Sunday with a three-shot lead, his ball in the right rough and behind some spindly trees, the green a mile away, modest waves lapping its shores. Waiting for him greenside were Tom and Jerry (Tim Finchem and Donald Trump in this incarnation), a check for $1.5 million and (figuratively speaking) a thick, gaudy belt with a new notch for win number 76. That's a staggering number, and we have been alive to see it. Lucky us.
Back in the rough, the Doral galleries—galleries like no other on Tour, a United Nations of spectators—were crowding in on Tiger's ball. Woods has never been much of a people person. His playing partner, Graeme McDowell, played first, and about 10 seconds later Woods chipped his ball out of the tangly Bermuda rough and to the privacy of mid-fairway, eager to get this one done and to take on whatever comes next. He closed with a bogey and won by two over his putting teacher, Steve Stricker. What, you were expecting him to pull a Jean van de Velde?
A year ago at Doral, Woods didn't even finish his Sunday round in the WGC Cadillac Championship, getting a cart ride to the parking lot from the 12th tee when his left Achilles tendon started to bother him. At that point, he was still looking for his first Tour win since running over a hydrant in November 2009. Since that 2012 walk-off, Woods has won five times, last year at Bay Hill and Muirfield Village and Congressional, this year at Torrey Pines and Doral. Nobody's won more in that period. He's healthy. (Doral was his third straight tournament.) He's happy. (He walked to greens last week twirling his putter like a baton.) He's....
No, we're not going to invoke the b-word. He's not back. For the millionth time, there is no "back." Too much has happened, in too many ways to recount here.
What there is now is a man named Tiger Woods, age 37, a single father with split custody of two young children who is once again the best player in the world, no matter what some computer-generated formula might tell you. Yes, we know: Officially, Rory McIlroy is No. 1. If Tiger wins his next start, at Bay Hill later this month, he regains possession of his old, and essentially meaningless, mantle. The point is that Woods is again better than everyone else.
You should also know that he's less better than everyone else than he used to be. In every category, there's somebody who does something better than he does. Dustin Johnson, for instance, is a better driver. Stricker is a better putter. Luke Donald is a better chipper. Sergio García hits better irons. Woods used to own all of those categories. He owned the categories, he owned the players.
But Woods's golfing IQ has never been higher, even if "he doesn't have the 350-yard bomb like he used to," as McDowell said last week. Woods has a sort of fade swing he's still learning. ("It's more consistent, day in and day out," he said.) He has a new informal putting coach in Stricks. (McDowell on Stricker's tutoring services: "That was nice of him. I'm sure he's regretting that lesson right now.") He has a private life still shrouded in privacy.
No significant other greeted Woods in victory. His children, his five-year-old daughter, Sam, and his four-year-old son, Charlie, were not around and neither was his mother. "It's different," Woods said, describing how the meaning of wins has changed over the years. "When I won tournaments when my dad was sick and when my dad passed and was dead, there was a different type of feeling. And then when I won the Open with Sam there for the first time [in 2008], that was different. We have our parents, and then the next thing you know we become parents. It's the evolutionary process, and that's how the wins have evolved." You're listening, it should be noted, to a man who has evolved.
Will Woods win at Bay Hill? The chances are excellent. Will he win at Augusta National next month? That's an entirely different question.
For Tiger, and for every golfer, winning begets winning. But what we saw last year is that Tiger's brilliant play at Arnold Palmer's tournament in March and at Jack Nicklaus's tournament in June did not carry over into his majors.
Why would that be? Because the majors, the Masters and the two Opens most especially, are different. The courses are harder and the line between success and failure is so, so fine. The guy wants them too much. He's been stuck on 14 majors since June 2008. (Only Nicklaus has more, with 18.) He has four wins at Augusta, but the last one came in 2005. No one is more aware of these things than Woods. In all four majors last year there were times that he rushed putts, that he looked lost in his preshot routine, that he was visibly irritated with himself and borderline misanthropic with others. At the PGA Championship there were times where he never said anything more than, "Where is it?"
Last week Woods was a man in full. If the circus is coming near you, get yourself to it, so that you may say you saw him, as your grandfather saw DiMaggio. TV cannot do Woods's greatness, nor his presence, justice. Last week he was striding the Trump Doral fairways as if he owned them. It was regal. It was mesmerizing.
Woods has now won at Doral four times in his career, and made $4.8 million there alone. Trump spent $150 million to buy the resort and will spend far more sprucing up the hotel and rebuilding the Blue Monster course "to make it more monster," Woods said, "not just blue."
Or red. His scores last week on the par 72 course were all red ones: 66, 65, 67 and 71. He took 100 putts, the fewest in any tournament of his career. But even though the greens were fast and firm at Doral, you cannot begin to compare them to Augusta's greens, which have far more slope and the easy two-putt from above the hole comes only in the electronic form of the game.
Woods often talks about taking baby steps. He's making a swing change; he takes baby steps. When he went from a bagful of Titleist clubs to 14 Nike sticks, he did it gradually, with baby steps. He added weight to his once skinny frame in baby steps. When he made that five-foot putt for bogey on 18 on Sunday at Doral, the journey there began with a baby step. You could of course say it began with those steps he made as a toddler, Earl beside him, marching onto Mike Douglas's stage.
Less grandly, the start of this journey to Doral could be pinned to the Accenture Match Play, where Tiger Woods lost in the first round to his friend Charles Howell III and looked for all the world like he wanted to be anywhere else. Prehydrant, you used to never see that. The golf course was his world.
But the following week, at the Honda, Woods was back to old familiar ways. "He's the greatest golfer of all time," Howell said last week, "and the greatest grinder." His game wasn't there at the Honda, and he could have packed it in at any moment. He did the opposite. He made the cut on the number and did nothing on the weekend, but every time you looked up he seemed to be on all fours, searching for another lost ball. He was searching, period.
Like the man says, it's a process. Last week it all came together, the swing work he's doing with Sean Foley, the grind-it-out mentality he inherited from his father, the putting lesson he got from Stricker, the comfort factor he has at Doral. He took a four-shot advantage into Sunday that it seemed unlikely he could possibly blow, and won by two. He closed bogey-par-bogey.
Maybe you think those closing bogeys are cosmetic and meaningless. McDowell said they were. So did Tiger's caddie, Joe LaCava, and others. The winner himself does not agree. He won a Masters by 12 and a U.S. Open by 15 and a British Open by eight. How? With superior talent, and by being absolutely greedy. Whatever his lead was, he wasn't satisfied. He got a foot on their necks and stepped harder and harder until you heard something snap. It was angry golf, really, like nothing that had been seen before. That's why the other players cried uncle. Those days are not coming back. The gap is much narrower, in the majors especially, where everything is magnified. His drive has mellowed.
A reporter commented on Woods's stress-free win at Doral.
"Stress free?" Woods asked. He was smiling, but he wasn't smiling when his third at 18 flirted with the lake and his chip for par was indifferent. "Did you not see 18?"
Woods lives for the majors. He thrives in stress. That is, he used to.
There is no "back." Too much has happened, in too many ways to recount here.
"I'm sure he's regretting that lesson right now," McDowell said of Stricker's putting tip.
If the circus is coming near you, get yourself to it, so that you may say you saw it.
Three key statistics from Tiger's victory at Doral (and why's he the man to beat at Augusta)
Total putts, a career low
Putts holed from 10 feet or closer, of 64 attempted
Total birdies, one off his career best
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With the Masters a month away, would you take Tiger or the field to win at Augusta National?
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Photograph by FRED VUICH
FAMILIAR TERRITORY Woods picked up his 76th career PGA Tour victory at Doral, where he has won four times, and his 17th World Golf Championship.
WARREN LITTLE/GETTY IMAGES (STRICKER)
WHAT ARE FRIENDS FOR? Woods got a lesson from Stricker, then beat his good buddy by two shots while attempting the fewest number of putts in his career.
Photograph by FRED VUICH
DRIVEN McDowell says Tiger no longer has "the 350-yard bomb," but he still beat the Northern Irishman by three shots on the weekend.
Photograph by FRED VUICH
Photograph by FRED VUICH
UNSHAKABLE Having sealed the deal with LaCava, Tiger now heads to Bay Hill, where he has won six times, and then, of course, Augusta.