Backspin: Tiger finding form, but he's not alone

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February 28, 2013
Brian Wacker

DORAL, Fla. -- The year's first major is just five weeks away and the stars seem to be aligning for what should be a masterful four days.

There's so much to glean from Tiger Woods' victory Sunday at the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship, where he not only picked up his 76th career victory to move within six of all-time wins lead Sam Snead but made a major statement with how he did it.

Woods is no longer thinking about how to execute his swing, he's just executing it.

"That's a big change, because obviously I was where I was a few years ago to where I'm at now," Woods said. "Especially on the fly out there, to make the adjustments that I need to make, where if I don't quite hit one just right, I know exactly what to go to to fix it. That's always the biggest thing is that I didn't really understand it sometimes."

He understands it now and it's showing in the results with five wins in his last 18 stroke-play starts on the PGA TOUR.

Rory McIlroy is the only player who can match that record over the last 12 months. And by the looks of his game by the time he left TPC Blue Monster at Trump Doral, it appears he's back to hitting the ball the way he did last season.

And lest we forget some other big names who appear to be rounding into form at the right time: Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker, Adam Scott, Graeme McDowell, Keegan Bradley and Rickie Fowler, to name a few.

With so many players performing so well, the Masters could be as wide open as it has ever been.

THE BACK NINE: 9 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Yes, Tiger Woods' putting stroke was largely what won him his 76th career PGA TOUR title Sunday. But his alignment and swing plane certainly looked to be spot on, too. "I feel like my game's becoming more efficient, and it's more consistent day-in and day-out," Woods said. "I'm very pleased with the progress I've made with (coach) Sean (Foley)."

QUOTES OF THE WEEK
"You don't have a lot of -- what's the right word -- belief that he's going to come back to the field I guess. He's been so solid with 54-hole leads over his career that you just don't think he's going to come back. And he didn't again."
-- Steve Stricker, who finished two back of Tiger Woods Sunday at Doral.
"It's a dream come true, something you dream about as a kid for me. I've been playing golf since I was four or five years old, and obviously growing up in Augusta, Georgia, I was probably 500 yards from the front gate. It means a great deal."
-- Scott Brown, whose victory Sunday in Puerto Rico was his first. It won't however get him into the Masters so he might have to wait until next year.
"I realized pretty quickly it wasn't the right thing to do. No matter how bad I was playing, I should have stayed out there. I learned that when the tough gets going, I've got to stick in there a bit more and I've got to grind it out. There's no excuse for quitting and it doesn't set a good example for the kids watching me. It wasn't good for a whole lot of reasons, for the tournaments, the people coming out watching me. I feel like I let a lot of people down with what I did last week, and you know, for that, I am very sorry."
-- Rory McIlroy, on his mid-round withdrawal at last week’s Honda Classic.
TWEETS OF THE WEEK
@TigerWoods: Thx stricks for the great putting lesson, and congrats on 2nd :) Great weekend at Doral all around. Thx for the support! See u in Orlando.
-- Woods after Stricker helped him with his posture and grip on his putting stroke earlier in the week at Doral. 
@McIlroyRory: That was more like it over the weekend! Treating myself to a milkshake after a nice little 65!
-- McIlroy following his final round at TPC Blue Monster, where he seems to once again have found his rhythm.
@stallingsgolf: Wow wow wow what a finish @scott_brown803 – Scott Stallings after the 29-year-old won for the first time after lasering a 3-iron under a palm tree and pitching up to 4 feet to set up a birdie on the final hole to go from one shot down to a one-shot victory in Puerto Rico.

2. Speaking of swings, Rory McIlroy's was in a much better place at the end of the week than at the start of it. Mostly, he was taking the club too far out on his takeaway and too far in on his downswing, which is what prompted him to employ that sort of odd pre-shot routine we saw early in the week. "I found that everything I'm doing, I'm having to exaggerate," McIlroy said after Friday's round. "If I think I'm taking it inside, I have to take it inside more. If I'm thinking about coming over the top more, I need to come over the top more. That's why I'm having to make all these swings just to really get the feel of it." By the weekend, the exaggerated pre-shot routine was gone.

3. McIlroy also had more than a swing or new equipment to adjust to. As Luke Donald, once No. 1 in the world himself, told me, "Attention can be a distraction." So can expectation, which is something Justin Rose found out as a 17-year-old when he finished fourth at the British Open. Early in his career, Rose at one point missed 21 cuts in a row. "The expectations are what I really, really struggled with," he said. "But I put all my faith in hard work. I learned golf's tough. It's a game that can bite you and it also taught me to appreciate the good moments." Now Rose is back to being one of the best players on the planet and McIlroy is too after the recent work he put in with coach Michael Bannon. "You can play your way out of trouble a lot quicker when you're No. 1 in the world," Rose said. "Rory has the skillset and the talent to turn it around a lot quicker."

4. A lot of times, a player will struggle the week after a win. There are obligations and distractions, and it's just plain hard to play that well two weeks in a row. Not Michael Thompson. He finished eighth in his first World Golf Championships event.

5. Remember when there was talk of who the next great American player(s) would be after Tiger Woods? Well, Americans have won the first 10 events this season, which hasn't happened in a couple of decades. They're here and aren't going anywhere for a while.

6. Stat of the Week I: 100. That's how many putts Woods needed at TPC Blue Monster at Trump Doral. It's also the fewest he's had over four rounds of a tournament, which, given his resume, says an awful lot about just how well he rolled it last week. "I would like to say I probably would have," Woods said when asked if he would have figured out his putting without the impromptu putting lesson from Steve Stricker. "But, there's a but there. I've been putting at home and just still hadn't felt right."

7. Stat of the Week II: Woods finished his week with 27 birdies, just one shy of a career-high 28 he had at the 2007 TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola and 2006 Buick Open.

8. Stat of the Week III: Second, fifth, second, or Steve Stricker's results in what has been a limited schedule this season for the 46-year-old. "I just feel like there's little pressure on me out there," Stricker said. "I'm having really a lot of fun. I know deep down that I'm only playing 11 times, and that excites me. But I also get very pumped up and excited to play when I do come out. I work at it hard still at home but in the back of my mind, it's just coming out and having fun, trying to play good golf and see what happens."

9. Stat of the Week IV: Woods now has 17 career WGC titles. That alone would place him 48th on the PGA TOUR's all-time wins list, just behind names like Julius Boros and Nick Price and ahead of, among others, Jim Furyk, Mark O’Meara and Tom Weiskopf.

Monday Mailbag

How long until Tiger gets back to No. 1 in the world? -- Ryan Edwards

It could happen as soon as two weeks. If Woods wins at Bay Hill, where he has done so seven times, he'll move to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking. Rory McIlroy, the current No. 1, isn't in the field for the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard, though he did think about adding it until he seemed to right his golf swing this past weekend. The way Woods is playing right now and given his history at Bay Hill, does anyone really want to bet against him right now?

Are the players happy with San Antonio being scheduled ahead of Augusta instead of Houston? -- Jeffrey DeVore

I'm not really sure it matters all that much to them. In terms of how the Valero Texas Open and Shell Houston Open relate to the Masters, it's more about the courses than the date on the calendar. Redstone will still be set up like an Augusta National-lite, while TPC San Antonio is an entirely different course. 

What is your favorite working week of the year? The Masters? -- Louis Kitsko

That's certainly one if not the favorite, Louis. The last two weeks are pretty high on the list, too. The Honda Classic has grown into a must-play for many of the game's top players and the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship already was that. It's also pretty hard to beat South Florida in late February/early March.

Have a question for the mailbag? Email your question to brianwacker@pgatourhq.com, or tweet it to @pgatour_brianw.
Forward Spin
The Tampa Bay Championship presented by EverBank is annually one of the toughest stops on the PGA TOUR and Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course is a ball-striker’s paradise. Last year, Luke Donald briefly took back the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking there with his playoff victory over Jim Furyk, Robert Garrigus and Sang-Moon Bae. Though Furyk has yet to register a top 10 this season, I like his chances of ending that this week. He has a good history there with a tie for 13th in 2011 and a win in 2010. Matt Kuchar and Louis Oosthuizen are two others to watch with both in good form and good fits there.
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