Winning at Congressional made it seem like 2009 all over again.
Woods returned from a significant leg injury back then amid questions whether he could be the same golfer he once was. He answered by winning Bay Hill, Memorial and the AT&T National in the first half of the season, and he wound up winning six times on the PGA Tour, seven worldwide.
This time, he is coming off a year in which he sat out three months and two majors to allow left leg injuries to fully heal. Halfway through the season, he has won those same three tournaments, so perhaps he is headed toward another year like 2009.
“Well, I had a good year that year. I think I won six times that year. That would be nice if I could get that same total,” Woods said, pausing to smile before adding, “with a couple of majors in there.”
Therein lies the difference — and the challenge.
It’s all about the majors, isn’t it?
PGA Tour events should not be dismissed. Congressional was tougher than it was for the U.S. Open last year. An argument could be made that no other golf course on U.S. soil did a better job identifying who played the best that week. It was the 74th career win for Woods, moving him past Jack Nicklaus into second place, leaving him only eight tour wins short of Sam Snead’s record.
Even so, that’s one of the few times Woods and Nicklaus are mentioned together when the topic is not major championships.
Majors are said to be the toughest to win, though that can be debated. The conditions tend to be so extreme they expose and eliminate those who don’t have full control of their game and their emotions. That’s what Phil Mickelson suggested in 2001 at the PGA Championship when he was frustrated by not having won a major at that point in his career, and Adam Scott raised the same point early last week at Congressional.
“I still think majors are every good player’s best opportunity to win a tournament,” Scott said.
Woods has not been a factor in the first two majors, another parallel to 2009. He tied for 40th at the Masters, and after sharing the 36-hole lead in the U.S. Open, he stumbled on the weekend and tied for 21st. While his performance looked OK on paper in 2009, he was never a factor in the first two majors — seven shots behind going into the last round at Augusta National, nine shots out of the lead on the last day at Bethpage Black.
The next stop for Woods is Royal Lytham & St. Annes, but not before he heads to The Greenbrier Classic this week in West Virginia.
The odds makers have installed Woods as the favorite for the British Open, just as they did for the Masters and the U.S. Open. And it’s still a good bet. Luke Donald remains No. 1 in the world, with Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood not far behind. Even with his win at Congressional, Woods stayed at No. 4 in the world. That’s only because of the math, and the fact the world ranking is based on two years instead of what happened yesterday, or even the last three months.
No matter. The score that will get everyone’s attention at Lytham will belong to Woods.
“I think he’s the only guy to win three tournaments on tour this year, is that correct?” Bo Van Pelt said after taking Woods the distance on Sunday only to finish two shots behind. “On three different golf courses. And he was leading the U.S. Open after two days. So I’d say that he’s playing the best golf in the world right now.”
The better measure of Woods’ standing is that he is leading the PGA Tour money list for the first time since September 2009, when he won the $10 million FedEx Cup bonus and capped off a season that topped $10 million in earnings.
To the golfing public, that’s just window dressing.
When it comes to Woods, the majors are really all that matter at this stage in his career. The notion of whether he is “back” from physical and emotional scars has been answered by now. He is capable of winning whenever and wherever he plays.
Even so, the conversation among the CBS Sports analysts as Woods walked toward the 18th green at Congressional shifted to the majors, and rightfully so. Until he reaches Snead’s record, the focus will be where it always has been — on the four biggest prizes in golf.
Woods now has won 27 percent of his PGA Tour events, a rate never seen for a guy who’s been around for 16 years. To break that down, he has won 28 percent of his regular tour events, compared with 24 percent of his majors. That translates to one major a year over the course of his career.
But he has gone four years without one, dating to the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines when he played on a left leg that had two stress fractures and shredded knee ligaments that had to be rebuilt the day after he won.
Woods was practically gloating Sunday evening about those who dared to even suggest earlier this year he might not win again. One reporter mentioned he had won three of his last seven starts and asked which parts of his game have come around.
“Pretty much everything,” Woods said. “I remember there was a time when people were saying I could never win again. Here we are.”
When the issue of media skeptics was raised later in his interview, Woods talked about overhauling his swing and that not being able to practice essentially put him a year behind. But once he became healthy, he could see the progress.
“It was just a matter of time,” he said. “I could see the pieces coming together. ... Give me a little bit of time, and I feel like this is what I can do.”
He’s doing what he once did with frightening regularity, which is to pose with the trophy. This is the 12th time in 16 seasons that Woods has won at least three times. Nicklaus had 14 seasons of at least three wins, though he never won more than seven in a year. Woods has had three seasons of at least eight wins.
There’s that Woods-Nicklaus comparison again, but it’s not the one everyone thinks about.