On Sunday Tiger Woods put on a finishing kick on the final four holes, playing them in three under to shoot past Rory Sabbatini to win his fifth Memorial Tournament.
The signature shot, which you may have seen a dozen times by now, was an incredible flop shot on the water guarded par 3 sixteenth that, on its dying gasp, snuck into the far right side of the cup. According to Jack Nicklaus, the tournament host, “…he had one place to land the ball, he’s playing a shot that if he leaves it short, he’s going to leave himself again a very difficult shot, if he hits it long, he’s going to probably lose the tournament. He lands the ball exactly where it has to land. I don’t think under the circumstances I’ve ever seen a better shot.”
This bit of heroics led to a vintage Woods fistpump, a vicious uppercut that was his most emphatic in years. Though the flop the big shot, Woods positioned himself for the win with a superb day of ball striking – he hit 13 of 14 fairways and 14 greens. For the week he hit 53 greens, 12 better than the field’s average of only 41. That type of quality ball striking that was the hallmark of Woods at his best, and it issues an ominous warning to his peers that he now ready to contend for majors again. But can he win them? That’s the last part of the process that Woods knows he must complete.
Following the win, the press dutifully gloated over Woods’ 73rd win PGA Tour victory, which tied him for second with Nicklaus on the all-time list. Even Tiger got into the act, saying he was surprised that he had done it “at such an early age.” So, 36 is an early age – well, I suppose so compared to Nicklaus, who won his 73rd at age 46.
Now let’s put their records in perspective. After 16 seasons, Nicklaus had won 64 times on the PGA Tour, nine fewer than Woods. The biggest reason he had not won as many as Woods is his superior competition. For example, at this point Nicklaus had finished second 50 times (counting seconds in the British Open) to Woods’ 28.
Nine of these seconds came at the hands of superstars in the majors including Arnold Palmer (2), Gary Player (1), Tom Watson (2), and Lee Trevino (4). Another big factor that’s inflated Woods’ total is the number of small field events that he’s won (22). In Nicklaus’ day, the only small field event was the Tournament of Champions. And finally, Woods returns year after year to his pet courses. As a result 31 of his wins have come on just five courses that are well suited to his game.
Woods’ win catapulted him from ninth to fourth in the World Golf Rankings, and he is now the betting favorite for the U.S. Open according to Ladbrokes.com, which has him at 6-1. Next is Rory McIlroy at 10-1. It is worth noting that Rory has missed three cuts in a row.
So, it would seem that all has returned to normal in golf’s kingdom – Nike is running a new commercial featuring Woods, he is the defacto best player, he’s won multiple times this season going into a major, and he is the favorite. And the intimidation factor is back – just ask poor Rickie Fowler, who shot an 84 in Woods’ company to Tiger’s 67.
To complete the picture, Woods needs only to win a major. He’s got three chances to do so in 2012. I’ve made my reservation with my couch for June 14-17. How about you?