TORONTO - In the hysteria that followed his seventh win at Bay Hill after 924 days without a victory, to suggest Tiger Woods is anything but a foregone conclusion as 2012 Masters champ causes jaws to drop and either glares or sympathetic stares at the poor soul who uttered such drivel.
What makes Tiger different than the flavours of the week who have also won on tour this year is that Woods won 14 majors before being caught in a web of indiscretions.
If Woods doesn’t win at Augusta, it will be four years since his last major victory at the 2008 U.S. Open, a drought that has not only been mired in the mud of personal revelations, but has also been interspersed with the reality of injuries that slowed his comeback.
After playing the Tavistock Cup, a practice round at Augusta and four rounds at Bay Hill, the health issues have apparently disappeared in the euphoria of his victory.
There are more tests to be taken and Augusta will be a stern one, particularly with former coach Hank Haney’s new book on Tiger sure to kick up some dust among the magnolias and azaleas.
At the risk of glares and stares, Tiger winning is not a foregone conclusion at the Masters, but he showed enough at Bay Hill to make him a contender. Based on his performance at Bay Hill, here’s five reasons why ...
1. A COOL CAT
In the old days, Tiger’s former caddie Stevie Williams might have roughed up the lady who screamed during Woods’ downswing on the 15th tee Saturday. As it turned out, she was reacting to a kid fainting.
“It happened midway on my downswing and I tried to stop it, but I passed the point of no return. I stopped it and flipped it out of bounds,” said Woods.
While there’s little doubt he was perturbed, Woods wasn’t as animated as in the past and managed to hold it together after a double bogey. He birdied the next hole to hold on to the overnight lead. Woods, of course, is 47 for 51 when going into the final round with the lead.
Composure is a valuable commodity at the Masters.
2. THE TIGER FACTOR
Graeme McDowell, Woods’ closest rival at Bay Hill, has stood up to him before by overcoming a four-shot deficit to win the 2010 Chevron World Challenge at a time when Tiger was looking for any sign of progress in his comeback.
The fact is, however, that McDowell put himself in a hole immediately with a double bogey on the first hole of Sunday’s final round and, while keeping it interesting, never really became a factor at Bay Hill.
The composure mentioned above became evident on the 11th hole where a birdie by McDowell threatened a two-shot swing but Woods made a tester of a par putt to limit the damage to one. McDowell responded with bogeys on two of the next three holes.
Did the Tiger intimidation factor cause McDowell to wilt and card a final round 74 or can we chalk it up to the fates? You decide, but Woods responded when necessary and kept the 2010 U.S. Open champion at arm’s length. Either way, it works going into Augusta.
3. THE COURSE, OF COURSE
McDowell is the most obvious example of not getting it done against Woods, but the rest of the field couldn’t get close either.
At least McDowell dialed in some long distance putts, but others were battling the lightning fast greens and nasty pin positions on a golf course that was playing longer because of the strong winds that threatened to plunk any ball that came close to its numerous bodies of water.
Bay Hill was playing like a major and Woods responded well in the blustery conditions that served up a tester for Amen Corner.
4. HE’S DUE
Despite all of the personal problems, injuries and swing changes, Woods still had an envious record at Augusta the past couple of seasons, when he recorded identical T4 finishes.
Granted, he hasn’t won since 2005, but since then, he’s been a runner-up a couple of times, with his worst finish being a T6.
Even the worst of times for Woods would be considered the best of times for most players.
5. HE’S GOT GAME
He may not be the longest guy off the tee anymore, but Woods is approaching 300 yards on average in driving distance, his approach shots were spot on and his putts inside 10 feet were gimmes, a noticeable difference from earlier in the year.
While some say age is catching up to Woods, he flourishes when using the wisdom of his years. On Sunday, he was using his low stinger to perfection into the windy conditions and three woods and irons were often called upon over driver.
Through all the turmoil of earlier this season, Woods is still fourth in greens in regulation, sixth in birdie average and second with a 68.27 scoring average.
Bay Hill marked the first time since the 2010 Masters that Woods recorded all four rounds under par, so will consistency come with confidence at Augusta?
That’s the only question separating him from being a contender and being the favourite at the Masters.