By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- For all that Tiger Woods has gone through on and off the golf course, self-inflicted and otherwise, he came away from Sunday night’s victory at THE PLAYERS Championship unsurprised.
“I know a lot of people in this room thought I was done,” he said. “But I'm not.
“I'm just trying to get better, and I feel like I'm getting better as the year's going on, which is nice.”
But the fact is he is light years better than where he was three years ago when he first started working with coach Sean Foley, who was tasked with overhauling the swing of arguably the greatest player to ever live. All that was at stake was history.
For Foley’s part, he says he’s honored to just be a small part of Woods’ success. But Foley -- who is about as different as different comes in his circle with his scientific approach to the swing, a degree in political science and philosophy from historically black Tennessee State and instant knowledge on everything from face and spine angles to the teachings of Malcolm X -- also has a front-row seat to what the rest of us don’t.
“People ask me, ‘Are you surprised?’” Foley said via cell phone. “Am I the only person who realizes who I’m watching play golf?
“Maybe he struggled for a while, but if he keeps showing up and keeps playing he is the best player in the world and probably the best player who has ever held a golf club.”
For Woods’ part, he has backed it up this year with four wins in seven starts on the PGA TOUR. And he was perhaps the width of a flagstick away from a fifth and his first major championship victory in five years.
TPC Sawgrass is one of the few venues Woods has seen his share of struggles at. Even though he’d won here before, that lone victory prior to this week stood as one of only eight tournaments that he’s won just once. No more, though.
“As astonishing as he is, he's still human” Foley said. “Doubt and fear affect all of us.”
Which if nothing else explains Woods’ struggles with the 14th hole, which has been problematic in his career. But after a double bogey there on Sunday, which dropped him from a two-shot lead into a tie for the lead, Woods rebounded with what was his key shot of the week, a difficult up and down from left of the 15th green to save par.
“To go double bogey-bogey would have been huge,” Woods said. “But to save a putt there and get some momentum going to the next three holes was big.”
It also signaled how far he’d come, particularly with his short game.
Woods, who leads the TOUR in putting, took just 28 putts Sunday. He was also third this week in greens in regulation and went 4-for-4 in sand saves – never mind all the little chips and pitches and bumps he managed around the riddle that Pete Dye’s masterpiece has been.
“It helps the full game,” Foley said. “You get into a bunker and hit it to 4 feet and make the putt, you go into the next hole with more optimism. That’s a big thing, the ability to get up and down.”
There was perhaps no better example of that than in the third round when Woods saved an impossible par from behind the fourth green to a short pin with a green that ran away from him in slope and grain.
“Imagine a swing that’s moving 50 mph to create a shot that went 2 1/2 feet,” Foley said. “That’s just so cool.”
It’s also a shot Woods might not have been able to execute when he and Foley began working together late in 2010.
“It was a different type of situation,” said Foley, who added that Woods has learned to adjust to the balance of being a father and not practicing as much because he has more going on in his life than just golf compared to when he was younger.
“It’s wonderful to see for golf and for Tiger because I’ve been fortunate enough to have an inside look at what he’s been through and what he’s pulled himself out of,” Foley said. “It’s a maturity and evolution you can’t teach.”
For Woods to have executed the way he did at a place where he doesn’t necessarily have the best memories doesn’t surprise Foley, either.
After all, he’s had the best view of anyone for the past few years.
“Look, he’s going to play 25 or 30 years and he’s obviously going to have blips in the radar like anybody, including Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Jones, you name it,” Foley said. “He can move it both ways again and he can get it into the stratosphere.
“He’s doing great. He’s balancing all these things in his life as we all are but still doing extra special stuff. He’s truly evolving into the champion he’s always been.”
Right now, it’s hard to argue otherwise.