By Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM columnist
Now that Tiger Woods has won his third event in five PGA TOUR starts this year, his sixth in 20 starts since last March and regained the No. 1 spot in both the FedExCup standings and the Official World Golf Ranking for the first time since 2010, he seems to have answered every question about his resurgent golf game.
Except one. Is he ready to win his first major championship since the 2008 U.S. Open?
Rather than wondering if the 37-year-old Woods is ready to win at Augusta, maybe the real question is whether any of his fellow competitors are ready to step up and stop him. Because by now it should be pretty clear that the guy who cruised to his eighth Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard -- tying the PGA TOUR record for most wins at one event set by Sam Snead back in 1965 -- is honed, healthy and hitting it (and putting it) with the old authority.
This week’s Shell Houston Open should provide some clues about who might be up to the challenge. In the Augusta-like conditions of the Redstone Golf Club Tournament Course in Humble, Texas, current and future TOUR stars headed by recently deposed World No. 1 Rory McIlroy are honing their games.
Among the field of 156 are Phil Mickelson, Keegan Bradley, Brandt Snedeker, Steve Stricker, South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen, defending champion Hunter Mahan, Lee Westwood (who finished T-3 in last year’s Masters), a reinvigorated Henrik Stenson, who won the 2009 PLAYERS Championship, and a host of others.
If any players missed seeing in the past couple months that Woods was approaching the form that won 14 major championships from 1997 to 2008, then surely his 77th TOUR win (just five short of Snead’s career record of 82) on Monday was an eye-opener. It was for Bradley.
“I feel like this is the Tiger I grew up watching,” Bradley told reporters after finishing tied for third at Bay Hill. The 26-year-old Bradley, whose three PGA TOUR wins include the 2011 PGA Championship, has three top-5 finishes this season. Maybe he will be one of the new breed of TOUR players to step up at Augusta National, where he finished T-27 in his 2012 debut.
One of the main plotlines this week will be whether the 23-year-old McIlroy can continue the positive direction his game took at Trump Doral. Another will be whether Mickelson, 42, who has had flashes of brilliance this year, will sharpen his game enough to win a fourth Masters.
McIlroy seems to have righted things after a stumbling start to the season He suffered a stunning 1-down defeat to Shane Lowry in his opening match at the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship, and then withdrew the next week at The Honda Classic on the ninth hole of his second round. His tie for eighth the following week, fueled mainly by a bogey-free final-round 65, started him back in the right direction, and he felt comfortable taking two weeks off to, as he put it, “get away from this whole thing a bit and work on my game a bit more in peace and quiet.”
Quiet time is over and the roaring rush to Augusta has begun. Mickelson, a fan favorite who thrives on the high-decibel commotion near the lead, has been quiet since his impressive win at the Waste Management Phoenix Open last month. Sanguine even after missing the cut with rounds of 73-79 at Bay Hill, Mickelson is laser-focused on his return to his favorite major championship and believes Houston, and some work with Butch Harmon, will be the ideal prep.
Woods recap from Bay Hill
“I’ll go work with Butch and see if I can get dialed in for Houston,” he told reporters as he packed up to leave Orlando last Friday. “I've got a ways to go. The more I play, the sharper I get. That’s why I like to have a tournament before a major. For me personally, I like playing in a tournament that’s similar to what we’ll be playing.”
Other contenders have chosen to take the two weeks off in the run-up to the Masters, believing that some early practice rounds at Augusta National and extra work with their swing coaches will better serve them. Among them is Justin Rose, runner-up to Woods at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, who shares swing guru Sean Foley with Woods and who broke away from post-round interviews to deliver a personal congratulation to Woods for winning and getting back to No. 1.
“It’s been an uphill climb for him,” Rose told Amanda Balionis of PGATOUR.COM. “He got outside the Top 50 in the world and to get back from there to No. 1 – I’ve seen how hard he’s worked with Sean Foley. I felt like I’ve had an inner look at what’s gone on behind the scenes.”
The result’s in plain sight – for Rose as well as Woods. Rose, who will be among the Masters favorites, knows all about uphill climbs. The 32-year-old South African born Englishman, who missed his first 21 cuts after turning professional at 17 after finishing as low amateur at the 1998 British Open, rose to World No. 3 on Monday, the highest ranking of his career.
And now Rose, and anyone else who aspires to greatness in men’s professional golf, will once again have to go through a healthy Tiger Woods. Woods, for all his reticence about his own readiness to win a major for the first time since 2008, has dropped a few strong hints.
“I'm really excited about the rest of this year,” he said Monday.
That will have to suffice as the gauntlet. Who will pick it up? That’s the question.