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      Backspin: Woods continues to get wiser and better

      Monday Backspin

    PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The question was something that would make for good bar room banter.

    If an 18-year-old Tiger Woods from the 1994 U.S. Amateur at TPC Sawgrass played against his 37-year-old self now, what would the score be?

    “I would win now,” Woods said.

    9 and 8?

    “I don’t care,” Woods continued. “As long as I won.”

    The point behind the humor is that while Woods was a physical freak early in his career, despite four major knee surgeries and a few other notable injuries, Woods is wiser and just better. Or at least getting awfully close to the player he was for more than a decade.

    He’s No. 1 in just about everything these days, including wins this season. He has four this year and seven in his last 22 starts on the PGA TOUR.

    And remember, he’s golf’s Mariano Rivera: Woods has converted on 53 of 57 third-round leads in his career and he’s won 78 of his 286 starts on TOUR.

    As his coach Sean Foley told me Sunday night, Woods has figured out how to balance everything in his life now, which is far busier than when he first turned pro and golf was all he had.

    “Coming here I was pretty confident in what I was doing,” Woods said. “I was hitting the golf ball well. And the way I was playing at Augusta, I was shaping the golf ball both ways and controlling my trajectory. I thought that was important coming into this week.”

    Translation: He missed in all the right spots, mostly, and in golf managing your bad shots is almost as important if not more so than hitting all those spectacular ones.

    1. To borrow a phrase Tiger Woods likes to use, the relationship (or lack thereof) between he and Sergio Garcia is what it is. But if there was any extra satisfaction from beating the player once cast as possibly the biggest rival to Woods, the world No. 1 kept it to himself. “We just go out there and play,” he said. “I had an opportunity to win the golf tournament when I was tied for the lead today, and I thought I handled the situation well and really played well today and when I really needed to. And that's something I'm excited about."

    2. Garcia, meanwhile, emerged from the scoring room with a smile on his face Sunday, despite having just dumped two balls in the water on No. 17 (and another on 18) after arriving at the penultimate hole with a share of the lead. That charm is part of the reason fans love him. While Garcia said he was distracted only a little by the back-and-forth between he and Woods (Garcia was upset that Woods had pulled a club and therefore caused a stir in the gallery as Garcia prepared to hit when the two were paired during the third round) he also said he wouldn’t change a thing. “No,” he said. “It sounds like I was the bad guy here. I was the victim. I don't have any regrets of anything.”

    3. The only thing Garcia would of course change is what happened on 17 on Sunday. “As the ball was in the air I was thinking, please be right, because it was straight at it,” he said. “It was probably 3 feet left of the hole. When it splashed, you think, well, hopefully I hit a good shot after this and make 4 and still have a chance on the next. You want to beat everybody in that field, and if (Tiger’s) in that field obviously you want to beat him. It's always nice to have a chance at beating the No. 1 player in the world, but unfortunately for me I wasn't able to this week.”

    4. Just some perspective on Woods as he closes in on Sam Snead’s record of all-tie wins on the PGA TOUR. Snead, who has 82 career victories, got No. 78 at the age of 46 years, 12 days. Woods’ 78th came Sunday at the age of 37 years, 4 months and 12 days. I wouldn’t be surprised if Woods tied Snead’s record this year. 

    5. That Ryan Palmer was even able to play much less get in contention after his longtime friend Clay Aderholt was killed in a car accident Thursday night was nothing short of amazing. “I didn't sleep at all Thursday night,” Palmer said. “I got a couple hours sleep, but I just had some good talks with friends and with (wife) Jennifer back home, and just came out with a good, positive attitude about what I was doing. Once I got inside the ropes, I kind of just let everything kind of leave it out there and just stay inside the ropes and inside myself and take things slow.”  

    6. Rory McIlroy left TPC Sawgrass on somewhat of a high note. He made it to the weekend for the first time in four trips there, and he birdied four of his last six holes to finish in the top 10. Still, his putting plagued him over the final two rounds. Dave Stockton, who coaches McIlroy in that area of his game, isn’t worried. “I don’t think people realize how good he’s playing,” Stockton said via cell phone Sunday evening. “I think what we’re about to see is what happened last summer. I’m still shocked he hasn’t won, and I’m going to be shocked if he doesn’t win maybe the next time he tees it up.” McIlroy has made three changes to his putter so far this season, the latest being a little added loft to get the ball rolling faster because he likes to forward press a bit on his stroke. McIlroy said Sunday he feels good about the club and will stick with it without any changes. His larger point was whatever struggles he has had of late are about the swing and not the equipment. But the swing and the results keep getting better and more consistent. Stockton’s right. McIlroy will win soon.

    7. Stat of the Week I: When Woods is at his best, he’s dominating par 5s. That was the case again last week, where he was a field-best 12 under over four days on the par 5s at TPC Sawgrass. Performances like that have earned him an awful lot of trophies over the years and he’s back to doing it again.

    8. Stat of the Week II: If there’s still any doubt on just how good Woods has been, how about the fact that of his 24 stroke-play rounds on TOUR this season, 22 of them have been at par or better? Which leads me to …

    9. Stat of the Week III: Sunday capped the first time in 10 years that Woods had four rounds of par or better at TPC Sawgrass.

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