DORAL, Fla. — There is a fascination with numbers when it comes to Tiger Woods, a product of him winning so much over so many years.
He now has 76 wins on the PGA Tour, six short of the record 82 by Sam Snead and one more than Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh combined. His two-shot victory at Doral was his 17th in the World Golf Championships. No one else has won more than three. The Cadillac Championship was the 22nd time he has taken at least a three-shot lead into the final round on tour, and he has won them all.
But there is only one number that matters.
Woods is measured by majors, and in the past five years he has not made up any ground on the record 18 won by Jack Nicklaus.
He remains stuck on 14.
Woods stamped himself as the favorite at Augusta National Golf Club, not so much because he has won twice before the Masters Tournament for the first time since 2008, but for the way he built big leads and never gave anyone else much hope.
Woods had a two-shot lead at the halfway point of Torrey Pines, doubled it going into the final round and stretched it to eight shots before he lost patience and interest in the Monday finish. Despite dropping four shots in the last five holes, he still won by four.
He led by at least three shots from the 11th hole Saturday at Doral until a conservative bogey on the final hole gave him a two-shot win over Steve Stricker.
“That’s how I know I can play,” Woods said. “To be able to bring it out a couple times so far this year – and then be able to close and get the Ws on top of that – that’s nice. Any time I can win prior to Augusta, it always feels good.”
The temptation is to declare that Woods is back, though that should come with a note of caution.
It looked like he was back when he won at Bay Hill last year by five shots over Graeme McDowell, then he tied for 40th in the Masters. It looked like he had that old magic back when he rallied to win the Memorial, then he went into a weekend fog at The Olympic Club and didn’t crack the top 20.
Though he has won twice this year, his record includes a missed cut to start the year at Abu Dhabi and a tie for 37th at the Honda Classic after not breaking par in any round.
How he fares at Bay Hill in two weeks – he could go back to No. 1 in the world with a win – will determine the degree of expectations going into the Masters.
McDowell might be the best judge of Woods among players. He has been in the final group with Woods three times in two years.
“I said in the press room last night, ‘He doesn’t look phenomenal, it just looks really, really good.’ And that probably came out wrong because what I mean is the golf courses don’t let you be phenomenal,” McDowell said, referring to Doral on Sunday and Bay Hill a year ago.
“In this wind the last couple days, his ball flight control is pretty stunning, really,” McDowell said. “It’s pretty cool to watch. I thought his short game and putting the last couple days was very impressive.”
Despite the up-and-down results at the start of the year, the big picture indicates an upward trend for Woods.
He went the last six months of 2012 without winning, and he didn’t register consecutive top-10 finishes until the FedEx Cup playoffs in September. Even so, Woods finished that season with five consecutive finishes in the top 10.
Woods has won more than half his PGA Tour events (40) on seven courses: Torrey Pines, Firestone, Bay Hill, Cog Hill, Muirfield Village, Doral and Augusta National. All are considered tough, and most of those wins came against some of the strongest fields.
He has won five times in the past year – the most of anyone in the world – and all were on strong courses.
“I felt that toward the end of last year that I was heading that direction, where things were becoming better,” Woods said. “That gave me so much confidence heading into the offseason that I was heading in the right direction. … And lo and behold, I’ve had two really good weeks this year.”
The question now is where it will lead.
This was the eighth time in his career that Woods has won at least two PGA Tour events before the Masters. In six of the previous seven years, he went on to win a major.