Woods back to being unbeatable with the lead

March 25, 2013
Brian Wacker,

ORLANDO, Fla. -- When Tiger Woods is asked about intimidation in golf, he often likes to point out that Ray Lewis isn’t waiting to lay anyone out as they come across the middle.

Fair enough. But you know what is intimidating in this otherwise cerebral game? Trying to catch Tiger once he has the lead on Sunday, or in this latest case Monday.

Is Tiger back?

He’s certainly back to something, and that something is starting to look awfully familiar after his third win of the season and sixth in his last 19 stroke-play starts on the PGA TOUR.

Bay Hill might be Woods’ personal playground after capturing the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard for an eighth time -- a record he shares with Sam Snead as the only players to have won the same event so often. But everywhere he plays is starting to look that way when Woods puts a peg in the ground, and people are starting to talk.

“You’re not expecting him to go backward,” said Justin Rose, who finished two shots behind Woods. “I was trying to birdie every hole, I was trying to be aggressive, and he can force you into that.

“I was lucky enough that it didn’t force me into mistakes, but Rickie (Fowler) coming down the 16th, it’s easy to maybe take on too much of that flag. Those are sometimes the mistakes you can be pressed into making.”

By the way, Rose bogeyed two of his first three holes in the final round.

And in fairness to Fowler, he was two back himself with three to play and had a front-row seat to one of Woods’ better ball-striking days having played alongside him. He had to make a move, but that’s pretty much the point.

“He's not going to give shots away,” said Fowler, who did just that by dumping his second shot on the par 5 into the water after catching his 7-iron a little heavy. “He's tough to beat in that way. You have to gain shots on him by making birdies.”

Even when Fowler did, Woods had an answer.

On the par-4 12th, Fowler ran in a 37-foot birdie putt to pull within two. Moments later, Woods dropped a 27-foot birdie of his own right on top of him.

“It was the Tiger of old,” Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava, said. “Most guys would hang their head like, ‘I can’t believe that guy made a 35-footer up the hill.’ That was big.”

Fowler also said he expected Woods to make it, so what does that tell you?  

However, it wasn’t all that long ago the opposite might have been true.

In the two-plus seasons Woods didn’t win, at one point sinking to an unfathomable 58th in the Official World Golf Ranking, plenty of others did, a generation of players spawning that didn't have the battle scars of a decade of Tiger’s dominance.

Monday, though, Woods moved to the top of the FedExCup standings and back to No. 1 in the world, usurping the game’s future and now former No. 1 Rory McIlroy, and in the process proving he’s not exactly ready to hand over the keys to the kingdom to the 23-year-old.

You have to go back to Oct. 31, 2010 for the last time Woods was in this position, though his game now is miles from where it was then.

“I've turned some of the weaknesses that I had last year into strengths,” Woods said. “My short game came around, I thought my swing was getting better, my short irons got better, lo and behold I won a few tournaments this year.”

It’s not just winning, but how he's done it, racing to the front of the pack the first three rounds then letting everyone else try to catch him.

Sound familiar? Woods’ career is built on that philosophy. He has cashed in on 52 of 56 third-round leads, including -- and this is the important part -- each of his last five.

His form has also been in form with Woods hitting the ball better than he has in a long time, a fact even he can’t deny, saying, “It's been years since I've hit the ball this consistently day-in and day-out.”

Woods' short game is tighter, too, whether it’s hitting 30- to 40-yard chip shots, or rolling in 10- to 20-foot putts. The evidence was again in the numbers at Bay Hill, where he led the field in putting.

The latter isn’t lost on LaCava, either, who has seen plenty in his years on the bags of Fred Couples and now Woods.

“I think that fact that he’s rolling it very well and making a lot of 20-footers, that’s impressive to me,” LaCava said.

“I think there’s more confidence for sure. The guy’s won six times, so you’re obviously going to get more confidence and I think it shows in the shots he’s hitting.”

It’s all a familiar cycle. The more Woods wins, the more confidence he gains. The more confidence he gains, the less there is to go around for everyone else as they try to catch him.

Asked whether others are taking notice of Woods’ name on the leaderboard the same way they used to, LaCava summed up his boss’ current place in the game the best of anyone.

“It’s a good question,” he said. “He’s won three of his four stroke-play events here in the U.S., so if you’re paying attention you’re going to look over your shoulder a little bit.”

Or a lot.