For loyal golf enthusiasts and even the casual observer, there are few things more exciting than a stellar, dominant round of golf from Tiger Woods.
And as Woods entered Sunday’s final round at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, that excitement was once again apparent as ESPN’s Tiger Tracker (itself a sign of his popularity) returned to SportsCenter and analysts agreed he seemed to be rediscovering his once-impeccable swing. Although the winner of 14 major championships fired off an ugly 75 in the final round, Woods proved that his game is finally back this weekend.
Ever since the tour’s biggest name let the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine National slip out of his grasp despite a lead heading into the final round, Woods’ game has never been the same. His drives have been so uncontrolled that his tee shots often struck spectators or came to a rest at the foot of oak trees 30 yards right off the fairway.
But Woods’ performance this weekend wasn’t just a fluke. It came on the heels of a third place finish in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in which he finished just two shots behind winner Robert Rock. Tiger’s Sunday red is no longer a sure sign of victory, but Woods’ game looks better than it has in years, so don’t be surprised if he brings home a major trophy before August.
On top of his strong start to kick off the 2012 tournament season, the first billionaire athlete picked up his first win since 2009 when he came out on top in the Chevron World Challenge in early December. The hype is back – and for good reason.
The key to Woods regaining his winning ways starts with his driving, undoubtedly the aspect of his game he has struggled with the most over the past several years. He’s only played in two tournaments this year, so it may be early to start breaking out the stat book, but anyone who has tuned in and watched him play can see a remarkable difference in his accuracy with the driver in hand.
Thus far in 2012, Woods has hit 72 percent of the greens in regulation and has hit close to 73 percent of his fairways. Those numbers are not just a major improvement for Woods, but also place him fourth on the tour in driving accuracy and 25th in greens in regulation. In contrast, in the 2011 season he hit just 48.9 percent of his fairways, ranking 186th on the tour. The lone fact that Tiger, who once spent 281 consecutive weeks as the world’s top-ranked golfer, is regaining control of his shots is more important than anything else to his long-term success.
It’s clear that new coach Sean Foley’s swing adjustments for his biggest client are once again giving Woods the consistent and powerful swing that allowed him to win three majors in a single season.
This certainly isn’t the first time you’ve heard Woods is back, that he’s once again the player who brings an aura of intimidation every time he steps up to the first tee. He’s certainly shown glimpses of becoming a dominant player once again – including a fourth place finish last season at the Masters – but he has shown the consistency in recent tournaments that was absent from his game since 2009.
With that much improved play comes a renewed sense of confidence, one of the most important aspects of his game and something that was essential to closing out majors when he controlled the lead going into Sunday. As Woods revealed in Pebble Beach, he’s still faltering in the final round, but the stoic focus that powered him to victory in the past will re-emerge as his confidence is rebuilt.
Perhaps everyone is just looking for improvement from a player they so desperately want to see regain his competitive advantage. But it’s hard to argue against the fact that his play over the last several months has been noticeably better than that of recent memory.
Simply put, the PGA Tour and the sport as a whole need the face of their game to return to the top of his game. As much as PGA Commissioner Tim Finchem may hate to admit it, Tiger’s play is crucial to the health of the United States’ premier golf circuit. According to ESPN, television viewership of majors nearly doubles when Woods is in contention in the final round compared to when he is injured or misses the cut.
Similarly, fellow players love competing against one of the most naturally gifted men to ever play professional golf, and his presence on the course heightens the level of intensity for everyone on the course. As longtime rival Phil Mickelson said after taking home the trophy at Pebble Beach, “I just feel very inspired when I play with him. I love playing with him, and he brings out some of my best golf.”
Although I consider myself a diehard golf fan; I can’t deny that I am glued to my living room couch when Woods is in contention. It’s just that much fun to watch him play.
Woods is essential to every aspect of the sport, and to the relief of slicing Sunday golfers and PGA officials alike, 2012 looks to be the year he finally turns things around. We’ve all been waiting.
Ian is a junior majoring in journalism. Think Tiger’s resurgence is nothing more than an overhyped media effort? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @imccue