Woods looking more and more like the Tiger of old

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March 10, 2013
Brian Wacker

DORAL, Fla. -- At the height of Tigermania between 1999 and 2009, Eldrick T. Woods won 35 percent of the time he put a peg in the ground.

Now consider this: In his last 18 stroke-play starts on the PGA TOUR, he's won five of them, or 28 percent of the time.

WGC-CADILLAC

Let's just get it out of the way right now: Tiger is back.

Back to what, I'm not exactly sure, other than his winning ways. I don't see how anyone could argue otherwise. Golf is all about numbers and Woods' don't lie.

Only Rory McIlroy can match the kind of run Woods has had the last 12 months. Yes, McIlroy is the game's future, but Woods isn't ready to move out of its present just yet.

"That's how I know I can play," said Woods, who racked up 27 birdies on his way to a two-stroke victory Sunday at the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship.

By the way, Boy Rors got dusted by Mr. Woods by nine shots.

"To be able to bring it out a couple times so far this year, and then be able to close and get the Ws on top of that, that's nice," Woods said.

It's also a statement and a bold one at that.

The last piece of the puzzle was Woods' putting and short game.

Both started to come together late last year and after a lesson from one of the game's flat-stick aficionados earlier this week, they helped author another virtuoso performance.

What was so memorable about Woods' latest victory wasn't so much that he finished 19 under, or that he beat a star-studded cast at a WGC event for the 17th  time, or even that he took the fewest putts of his career over four rounds with a paltry 100 this week.

It's not even that he's now converted 52 of 55 third-round leads, including 20 of his last 21.

Or maybe it is.

When Jack Nicklaus was at his best, his opponents knew they were beat. He also knew that they knew they were beat. And they knew that he knew that they knew they were beat.

Enter Steve Stricker, impromptu provider of those putting tips the day before the tournament began at TPC Blue Monster at Trump Doral.

"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," said Stricker, who finished two behind Woods. "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."

Stricker's statement reminded me of something Adam Scott told me in 2006 when Woods was on his way to winning the PGA Championship at Medinah Country Club.

"When I'm in the comfort zone, I feel I can do anything," Scott said that August afternoon. "Imagine how he must feel."

Especially now.

For all Woods has gone through the last four years, the roller coaster is clearly on the way up with no sign of it going down anytime soon.

The other three times Tiger opened his year with wins at Torrey Pines and TPC Blue Monster, he ended them with six, eight and seven victories, including at least one major in each of those years.

Which points Woods squarely toward Augusta National five weeks from now.

There's no doubt he will be considered a favorite, if not the favorite like so many times before.

And why shouldn't he be? He might even again be No. 1 in the world by the time he gets there. A victory at Bay Hill -- another course he has owned -- in two weeks would do it.

But there was something else that Sticker noticed, besides some flaws in Woods' putting stroke.

"His attitude and his belief in himself again looks very similar to when he was in the early 2000s, or you can pick any year I guess , when he was playing great," Stricker said. "He just seems in a better place mentally. He seems to be having fun, seems to have a lot of confidence in himself and his game.

"He's getting it back again, and we know what type of player he is, and it's fun to see him get that potential and that winning way again."

From where Woods stands, it's a little of the chicken and the egg -- you can't have happiness on the golf course without good play and you can't have good play without happiness on the golf course.

"I am probably in a better spirit because I'm making more putts," Woods said. "Now I know how (Stricker) feels every day. No wonder he's always in a good mood."

And every victory still feels good to Woods, who has gone through a myriad of personal and professional changes with all of them -- injury, swing change, the loss of "Pops."

"They are certainly different," Woods said of his 76 career wins. "I guess it's the evolution of life."

And the rebirth of some familiar golf.

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