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Return to dominance

Tiger Woods has gone through four incarnations as a professional golfer, with one constant: In each case he has been the world’s best player.

As the pre-1998 raw power player who won the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes, then decided to change his swing for the second time in four years.

As the new and improved player who won seven of 11 majors in 1999-01 after changing his swing under Butch Harmon’s guidance and then parted ways with Harmon. He would win six consecutive Tour starts during that stretch.

As the only player in the modern era to win multiple major championships in consecutive years, 2005-06, as Hank Haney’s pupil despite not driving the ball as straight as he did earlier in the decade. He would win seven consecutive Tour starts counting his first event of this year.

And now as the complete control player who seems to be swinging differently since the British Open. He has adapted Haney’s teachings while modifying and owning his swing with the coach in the background. The result is four victories and a second in his last five starts.

That kind of success in the midst of so much change is yet another thing that sets Woods apart. Golfers, of course, can run the risk of getting worse when they attempt change. We’ve seen some free falls. The gentlemanly Ian Baker-Finch is the classic example. David Gossett is another high-profile case.

About the only thing that worries a touring pro more than wind is the possibility of losing it. Woods, though, is fool-proof because he is one of the game’s longest hitters and hardest workers, the best thinker, the best putter and world-class with a wedge.

At 31 years old, he appears better than ever. He seems to be getting better. No one has ever said that before about someone with 61 victories. The four men with more titles – Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer – were winding down at that point. Woods, though, is flying upward, not yet at an age when most golfers reach their mental and physical peak.

His numbers of late paint the picture of dominance much like his record-setting 2000 did.

His adjusted scoring average in each season is a stunning 67.79. Byron Nelson’s 68.33 of 1945 was considered for decades a record that might never be broken, and Woods has eclipsed it twice in eight years.

This time, his average is 1.5 strokes better than No. 2 Ernie Els’ 69.29. That comes to six strokes over 72 holes. What’s more telling is this: You have to scroll down to No. 91 in scoring average to get to someone whose stroke average is 1.5 strokes below Els’. Bob Estes and Chris Riley are tied there at 70.79.

Woods’ latest surge started a couple of months after his father, Earl, died last year. Since mid-July of 2006, Woods has won 13 of 22 Tour starts (59 percent), with three seconds sprinkled in.

He usually is his best on tough courses. Yet he showed the past two weeks he’s the best sprinter as well, winning the BMW and Tour Championships impressively on courses with rain-softened greens, the latter by eight strokes.

His 45 under par in those final two FedEx Cup playoff events was 22 shots better than next best (Tim Clark). And he was playing against the best the year had to offer.

Separation, that’s the common denominator for 2007 and ‘00. He distanced himself seven years ago by winning the U.S. Open by 15 strokes and the British Open by eight. Now he’s doing it no matter the venue, tough or easy, par 70, 71 or 72.

All that talk about a Big Five or Big Four or Big 4 1/2 is a blurred memory.

Woods’ swing looks better and more under control than ever. He’s finding the fairway with improved regularity, as he showed in tying for third in fairways hit at the BMW.

All this means two things: Bad news for the competition, great news for the golf fan who can sit back and watch a prodigy stretch the bounds of success. We’re back to that in a big way.

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