MELBOURNE, Australia – Tiger Woods hasn’t looked this good on the golf course in back-to-back weeks since he left Australia two years ago with his 82nd title and the indisputable No. 1 ranking.
OK, it’s a small sample.
The Australian Open and the Presidents Cup marked only the sixth time since the end of 2009 that Woods has even competed in consecutive weeks.
He finished third in Sydney, two shots out of the lead. He played just as well, if not better, at Royal Melbourne, even if his record will show him contributing only two points. Still to be determined is whether the last two weeks represent another tease or substantial progress that Woods really is on his way back. Nine rounds of solid play - mostly in windy conditions - would suggest the latter.
Next up for Woods is his season finale in the Chevron World Challenge next week in California.
It was a small coincidence that the decisive point in another American win in the Presidents Cup came down to Woods. U.S. captain Fred Couples put him in the 11th spot for the 12 singles matches on Sunday. Woods closed out Aaron Baddeley on the 15th hole with his sixth birdie, the most of any player on another tough day at Royal Melbourne.
The comments that followed were not so much of a coincidence.
Nothing irritates Woods more than people who either doubt or criticize him, and that list included International captain Greg Norman. Along with saying he thought Woods’ dominance in the majors was over, the Shark said he would not have picked Woods for the Presidents Cup, instead choosing PGA champion Keegan Bradley.
Couples not only used a captain’s pick on Woods, he announced it a month before his team was even decided.
“I’m thankful that he picked me,” Woods said. “Greg is probably not happy about it after I closed out the cup today.”
The Presidents Cup was a big step for Woods, and it ended with a small dig at Norman.
And there could be more to come.
Woods has spent a career wanting to prove the skeptics wrong. He was questioned for overhauling his swing under Butch Harmon after his watershed win at the 1997 Masters, but when he was finished, Woods reached incomparable levels. He won 28 times in a three-year span, and had a stretch of winning seven out of 11 majors.
Then came another change under Hank Haney, where everything was inspected except the number of trophies. Woods won a fourth green jacket at the Masters in 2005, was runner-up in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, then captured another British Open that showed he was back on top of his game, and his sport.
Woods couldn’t resist a shot at his skeptics.
“I’ve been criticized for the last couple of years. ‘Why would I change my game?’ This is why,” Woods said that summer day at St. Andrews. “First, second and first in the last three majors. That’s why.”
There are differences this time around.
Woods is 35, and five of the top 10 players in the world are in their 20s. That includes U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, former PGA champion Martin Kaymer and Dustin Johnson, the most talented American still in his 20s.
He had surgery for the fourth time on his left knee after winning the 2008 U.S. Open, his 14th and last major to date. He injured the left knee again at the Masters this year, and while he described it as “minor,” he hobbled off the TPC Sawgrass a month later and did not return to competition for three months.
When he came back, he looked ordinary at Firestone and missed the cut at the PGA Championship.
The excuses he offered were reasonable, even if not many people wanted to hear them. He had only been processing changes to his swing under Sean Foley for a year, and he couldn’t spend the proper amount of time on the range to work on them. He said his left leg was stronger than it had been in years, giving him time to practice. All he needed was competition, yet he wasn’t eligible for the FedEx Cup playoffs, and he couldn’t play other events because of family commitments, set out in his divorce, that were not flexible.
As always, only Woods knows where he is in this “process.”
“This is the way I’ve been hitting it at home, “Woods said. “I’m very pleased with the progress I’ve made with Sean, and it’s finally paying off under pressure. It held up nicely last week at the Open, and it held up nicely this week.”
Questions remain about his putting. Woods used to make everything, or so it seemed, at the height of his powers. There are times it looks as though he makes nothing now. Making putts wasn’t easy for anyone at Royal Melbourne, especially with the wind. Even so, Woods missed his fair share at the Frys.com Open and at the Australian Open.
Woods once said he believed the yips were hereditary. When asked about his father - the best putting coach he ever had - about nine months before Earl Woods died, he smiled and said: “He still makes everything.”
That’s why John Cook shakes his head when people write off Woods.
“I watch and listen on TV and I cringe,” said Cook, perhaps Woods’ biggest supporter. “It doesn’t make any sense at all. A healthy Tiger Woods is trouble for a lot of people. He knows his place in history, and he wants his place in history. He just needed people to believe in him. I know Fred never stopped believing in him.”
Couples was the first to approach Woods after his win over Baddeley, shadow boxing with him on the 15th green.
Perhaps both of them shared a feeling on vindication.
“I felt like I was picking the greatest player I’ve ever seen,” Couples said. “I’ve never seen anyone play like Tiger.”