Backspin: Tiger might not be his old self, but he's very close

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January 29, 2013
Brian Wacker,

Vintage Tiger Woods? At times, yes.

What does it all mean? We don’t know, at least not yet.

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There is nothing but positives for Woods to take from his win at the Farmers Insurance Open, the 75th of his career, which puts him within seven of leader Sam Snead on the all-time list. The only hiccup was that Woods closed in 39, but he attributed that more to the pace of play than old motor patterns or missed putts.

The 'Is Woods back' question is the one being debated this morning. But back to what? How he played from 1999-2009?

The answer is no, but it’s also not a fair question to ask, because those 10 years were the best golf anyone in the history of the game has ever played, with Woods winning 35 percent of the time. We’re also four years removed from that period. Woods is 37 years old, and he’s gone through a myriad of issues on the course and off it over that time.

“I think it's efficient,” said Woods, describing the current state of his game. “I'm not going to compare it to those years, because each one's different. I had a different swing then, just like I did back in '99, 2000, 2001. But the commonality is, I won golf tournaments, and that's what I'm doing again.”

Naysayers might point to the fact that Woods still hasn’t won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open, and that of his last four victories all have come on familiar venues -- Torrey Pines, Congressional, Muirfield Village and Bay Hill. But that’s always been his M.O., with 32 of his career victories coming from five tournaments. It doesn’t cheapen any of them. If anything, it lends a certain level of comfort.

The best way I’ve heard Woods’ progression described came from a source who knows him well: It’s not all that different from when a child goes from crawling, to being able to stand while holding onto the railing, to walking a few steps before falling down, to running around the house with a parent chasing them.

“It's not like something that you can do overnight and make changes, and all of a sudden it's great,” Woods said. “From where I came from to where I'm at now, it's a big change.”

The only difference now is that Woods is the one doing the chasing with world No. 1 and fellow Swooshmate Rory McIlroy perched atop the game. This is just the latest sign, though, that Woods is moving closer to McIlroy, for however much longer he can keep up, and to some semblance of his former self.

Four wins in Woods’ last 16 starts on the PGA TOUR is a pretty good place to start.

Quotes of the week

“This reminds me a lot of Winged Foot in 2006, where I hit a drive way left off the tents. This happened to be way right. I've made some dumb, dumb mistakes, and, obviously, talking about this stuff was one of them. I made a big mistake talking about this stuff publicly, and I shouldn't have done that.” -- Phil Mickelson last week, poking fun at himself as he discussed his much talked-about tax comments the week before.

“It's nothing that I haven't dealt with before. I played the Walker Cup in 2007 over in Northern Ireland at Royal County Down and there was a guy I competed against three times called Rory McIlroy. So there may have been 10 or 12,000 people following us.” -- Billy Horschel on being paired with Tiger Woods for the first time. A few players gave Horschel advice on how to deal with the atmosphere, which is easier said than done. Horschel, who is easily excitable, shot 76-75 to fall from second to 39th.

“I don't know if anybody would have beaten him this week.” -- Nick Watney on Tiger Woods in what used to be a pretty regular sentiment on TOUR and was again last week.

Tweets of the week

@TigerWoods: There’s something special about Torrey Pines. It’s an honor to win No. 75 on Tour here. Thanks for all the support. -- Woods following his eighth career victory there, seven of which have come in the Farmers Insurance Open.

@OgilvieJ: Tiger wins going away and market at 2007 levels. Basically you could have lived on an island for 5 years and we're status quo. -- Joe Ogilvie astutely pointing out the cyclical nature of golf and the stock market.

@Steve_Flesch: Tiger can win, despite his driving, because none else has the strength and talent to recover from the predicaments he's in. -- Turing bogeys into pars and pars into birdies was as much a story as anything for Woods last week.

THE BACK NINE: 9 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Tiger Woods played the par 5s at Torrey Pines in a collective 12 under. That’s old school, and a big part of why he has 75 wins on TOUR and why he got his latest one on Monday. Woods ranked second in the field in par-5 scoring and outpe rformed the field by seven shots. How relevant is that? Consider that in 39 of his wins, he was first or second in par-5 scoring. “You're not going to hit every par 5 in two,” Woods said. “But you need to get up and down, and I did that this week.”

2. Brandt Snedeker is a horse at Torrey Pines, where he has finished in the top 10 five times in seven starts, including Monday’s tie for second. He’s kicking himself, though, over that second-round 75 Friday. It cost him any hope of a second straight win there and left a bad taste in his mouth, mostly because of his usually very good putting. “You've got to roll the ball really well around here, and I didn't do a good job of that in the second round,” said Snedeker, who missed six putts from inside 10 feet, including three inside 5 feet, in Round 2. “It's a little frustrating because it's normally something I think I can do well.”

3. When does a 75 feel good? When it includes birdies on each of the last two holes to get you into the following week’s tournament. That’s what happened to rookie Brad Fritsch, who missed the Monday qualifier for the Waste Management Phoenix Open only to get in anyway thanks to the late birdies -- one of which came from 38 feet out -- and a tie for ninth. If nothing else, playing in the Woods gauntlet seems to have prepared him for the loudest tournament in golf. “I handled playing in front of Tiger,” he said afterward. “So I think I should be able to handle playing in Phoenix.”

4. July 1, 2011 was the last time Mike Weir made the cut -- until last week. The 42-year-old Canadian’s road back from a torn ligament in his elbow has been a long and often times a painful one. But he’s headed in the right direction. “I'm happy with the progress I'm making,” Weir said. Three rounds in the 60s this season might not sound like much, but last year he didn’t crack 70. And four times failed to break 80 while missing the cut in all 14 starts he made. Said Weir: “You want it right away, but I've seen some good signs, so that's always positive.”

5. One of the other lost-in-the-shuffle-stories from the week was Rickie Fowler -- probably because he was in last place after the first round. Fowler rallied hard, however, with a 65 the next day and kept it going all the way to the finish to get into a tie for sixth, just two strokes out of second place. There’s a lot to be said, and learned, from that.

6. Another week, another notch on Mother Nature’s belt. Of the four events played this season, weather has affected two of them. This was clearly the more frustrating. “Fog's the worst,” PGA TOUR Vice President of Rules and Competitions Mark Russell said after Saturday got wiped out by the soupy stuff. “It's just difficult to deal with, especially when you know the weather is nice. It's not raining. There is no dangerous situation. You just can't see.”

7. How rare was the lengthy weather delay for the Torrey Pines event? Going back to 1975, the Farmers Insurance Open had never had a 72-hole tournament finish on a day other than Sunday.

8. Stat of the Week I: Prior to this week, Woods won his first start of the year on TOUR six times. Five of those years he went on to win a major. I don’t know what that says about his chances the rest of this season, but Woods hit the ball mostly well enough last week to win a major. I think the Masters is his best opportunity.

9. Stat of the Week II: 3 hours, 45 minutes, or the time it took Woods’ group to play the final 11 holes Monday. Explaining his back-nine struggles, Woods said, “In the end I just started losing my patience. It was so slow out there. We played nine holes in just over three hours and three of them are par 3s. That's not fast.”  


Monday Mailbag
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MONDAY MAILBAG
Do you think Charles Howell III wins a big tournament this year? Maybe a major? Man is due and in form. – Jeff Grissinger

You’re right, Jeff, in that Howell has been on point early this season with three straight top 10s, including a second and a third. Forget the majors, though, and let’s start with just winning somewhere, which he hasn’t done in six years and has done only twice in his career. There’s something to be said for continuously knocking on the door, but there’s something else about finishing second 14 times in your career. It can be a dubious honor. Yes, I do think he’ll win somewhere, but it might not come until the start of the 2013-14 season in the Fall, another time of year he typically plays well.  

Wouldn’t you think after Dustin Johnson’s rules mishap (in the 2010 PGA Championship) that all pros would be up to speed on the rules? -- Brad Hunter

Brad is referring to Tiger Woods’ penalty in Abu Dhabi, which in part led to his missed cut there before he won in San Diego last week. Most players know the rules and know them well, but some are better than others, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a lot of guys who know every rule, some of which are totally arcane, even in the eyes of PGA TOUR Commissioner Tim Finchem, who said last week, “I think at its core we all know there are rules in golf that don't make a lot of sense.”

Forward Spin: Who I like this week
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FORWARD SPIN: WHO I LIKE THIS WEEK
The Waste Management Phoenix Open is the biggest party in golf, with its lively atmosphere, but it also boasts a strong field with 20 of the top 50 in the world scheduled to play. A year ago, it was also the site of Kyle Stanley’s redemption -- a week after blowing a seven-shot lead in the final round in San Diego, Stanley erased an eight-shot deficit (assisted by Spencer Levin’s 75) to win. I don’t know that we’ll see anything close to that this year, but I do think Bubba Watson has a very good chance to win. The part-time Scottsdale resident withdrew due to the flu last week, but before that, finished fourth at Kapalua. He also has a couple of top 10s in the event in his six starts there, including a tie for fifth a year ago.


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