It may seem distant now, but just six months ago on a brisk late-September afternoon in Liberty City, New Jersey, Tiger Woods stood amongst the top 12 American Golfers in the World at the Presidents Cup. Tiger flashed one of his quick, patented smiles towards US Captain Steve Stricker before a grimace set in; overtaking his body in much the same way allegations and injuries had overcome his reputation in recent years.
Tiger was there to assist the American side OFF the golf course; something he had become obsessed with in his absence from the ability to golf on his own. The grimace that had overcome him wasn’t new and it certainly would be far from the last. So it was, to those around him, no real surprise when he uttered the words “I may never play competitive golf again.” This wasn’t the Tiger Woods that we saw win 14 majors or conquer literally anything and everything in front of him. No, this was a different Tiger. This Tiger struggled to ride an entire hole in a Golf Cart for fear of a bump in the road setting off a spasm. This was a Tiger Woods that couldn’t hit a full wedge, nonetheless outdrive nearly every other golfer on Tour. The most he could muster at the time were 60 yard pitch shots; settling for a LOT of time on the putting and chipping greens installed at his home (One of the three an exact replica to Bay Hill’s grass and green complexes).
Well, fast forward six months later, Tiger Woods is getting ready to put that work to the test and tee it up for real at Bay Hill, now the tournament favourite. How on earth did that happen?!
For one, he is Tiger Woods. It’s, quite frankly, nearly impossible to explain how or why Tiger is the way he is, but one common trait amongst those speaking of him remains undeniable: his work ethic. It’s safe to say he grinded his way back to relative health, but since then his rise back to relevancy has actually come rather quickly.
He finished ninth at his own shortened field, unofficial event in his first real return to the course in December; not exactly ground breaking, but he managed to play four rounds. Then, he showed up at Torrey Pines, another course he has completely dominated in his career, and strung together another pretty impressive four days all things considered, finishing in a tie for 23rd place.
But, soon after, he missed the cut at Riviera. It wasn’t by much, but it was only the 18th Missed Cut of Tiger’s career. Still a long way to go.
Tiger pinpointed specific aspects of his game that needed work, went out and did that work, and committed to the Honda Classic. He would tie for 12th, a number that really should have been higher if not for a stumble down the stretch at the Bear Trap. But still, progress.
And then last weekend happened. Tiger showed up to a tournament he had never played in, at a course he hadn’t played in 20 years. And he dazzled us, finishing just one stroke out a playoff with Paul Casey.
So here we stand, on the precipice of what seems like a very big moment in the career of Tiger Woods. Will he continue his momentum and snatch another win from the hands of the rest of the field, firmly planting his flag in the ground as the guy to watch at Augusta? Or will this be yet another in a long line of disappointments since Tiger defeated Rocco Mediate on one leg at Torrey Pines in 2008, the last time he won a major.
I’m an optimist so I’m going to go with the former. And here are FIVE reasons why:
REASON #1: His Course History
Something about this place just fits Tigers eye. In 17 starts at Bay Hill, Tiger has compiled 14 Top-25 Finishes and Eight wins. EIGHT. That’s the same amount Mike Weir has in his entire career. It’s more than the career tallies of Matt Kuchar, Henrik Stenson, Jason Dufner, Patrick Reed, the list goes on and on.
Not only has Tiger dominated here in general, it’s also proven to be a cushy landing spot in some of his prior returns. After the infamous scandal that turned the golf and sporting world upside down, Tiger earned his first win back right here; the 2009 Arnold Palmer Invitational. It would be his 66th Career victory. Again in 2012, coming off an extended break due to injury, Tiger ended a victory drought that went back to the ’09 season, getting his 7th API triumph and 72nd career win. A year later, in his last appearance at Arnie’s Place, Tiger would win again. Clearly there is a comfort level there and a precedence set for big victories for Tiger Woods. This week would just add to that legend and put Tiger in more new territory: it would be his 80th career win, two shy of Sam Snead’s record of 82, and Tigers first win since the 2013 Bridgestone Invitational.
REASON #2: Iron Play
Bay Hill is built for the approach shot. All the par threes measure 200+ yards, there are two par-fives reachable with long-iron approaches, and many of the par-four tee shots require less than Driver. If there is one thing we’ve seen glimpses of vintage Tiger in since his return, it’s his iron play. In his prime, Tiger was hands down the greatest long-iron player to ever play the game. He may not be at that level, but it’s still his bread and butter. After missing the cut at Riviera at the Genesis Open, Tiger remarked on his disappointment that he wasn’t able to consistently leave his approach shots pin high. He went home and worked, and had two late Sunday pairings in his next two events to show for it. Since returning to the Tour at the Hero World Challenge, Tiger ranks 19th in Strokes Gained: Approach, a number that is rapidly improving. At the Genesis, he was -1 Strokes Gained: Approach for the week. At the Honda, he gained 4.5 strokes. And last week at the Valspar, he bumped that up to Five strokes gained. Further to that, his move away from Drivers off the tee, opting instead to lay back and find the fairway with woods and long irons, have shown dividends as well. At Genesis, his Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee was -2.1. At Honda that number got back up to 0.2, and last week it improved again, up to 1.9.
However you look at it, Tiger’s iron play has been his best attribute. Expect those numbers to continue improving, or at least stay where they are. If that’s the case, Tiger will be in contention yet again.
REASON #3: Bay Hill is a TOUGH Course
In 2017 Bay Hill ranked as the fifth hardest non-major course on Tour. Know who loves hard courses? Tiger Woods. He has said this many times in the past, and reiterated it again last week, relishing in the fact that the Copperhead course at Innisbrook rewards pars. This is one of the reasons Tiger thrived so much in majors. Unlike a lot of golfers on Tour that flourish when filling the cup up with birdies, Tiger gets his excitement from battling the course itself. With Tiger’s mix of short game prowess, clutch putting, and the mental edge he has taken advantage of for years, one can surmise why Tiger is at his best when the conditions are at their worst.
REASON #4: Lack of “HOT” Golfers coming in
Don’t get me wrong, the field at this weeks Arnold Palmer Invitational is stellar. Five of the top-ten and 12 of the top 25 golfers in the world will tee it up, all with thoughts of taking home the trophy. However, no one comes in riding any sort of heat wave. Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas, the two hottest players currently on Tour, aren’t in the field. Rory McIlroy, arguably the most dominant player currently on Tour when he is on, certainly is NOT on at the moment. Sure, Jason Day and Justin Rose come in playing some good golf, but certainly nothing Tiger hasn’t seen before. Combine that with Tiger’s current form; finishing 2nd last week in a tournament he has never played in, on a course he hadn’t played in 20 years, and then take that form and place him on Bay Hill, and it makes sense that Tiger comes in as the favourite.
REASON #5: He is TIGER WOODS
If it were anyone else, that saying “Because its so-and-so” would be an eye-roll inducing sentence to read. But this IS Tiger Woods. To think he doesn’t want this, and want this BADLY, would be grossly misunderstanding Tiger’s newfound kindness on the course. Also consider that this is the first time Tiger has played this event since Arnold Palmer passed away, a man Tiger was quite close with. Tiger also was named Presidents Cup Captain earlier this week for next years matches in Australia. You can bet two things: One, he wants to be on that team, not just the captain. And two, Tiger isn’t ready to drift off into Captain or Honorary golfer mode. Combine all of that with The Masters being less than a month away, and all of the confidence Woods comes into Bay Hill with, and there is little doubt he wants to put his stamp on the Tour and show that yes, Tiger Woods IS back.