Tiger winning the U.S. Open by 15 at the U.S. Open Tiger coming from seven down with seven to go and still winning at Pebble Beach Tiger winning four times in succession at Bay Hill, three times in succession at Memorial and WGC-NEC Tiger hitting the impossible shot from the bunker, over the lake and onto the green to win the Bell Canadian. You undoubtedly have your own memories of the man, the shots, and the victories, 41 on the PGA Tour alone.
Those days are not over, of course. But it seems extremely unlikely that Tiger Woods will ever be in the winners circle nine times in one year, such as he was in 2000. Phil Mickelson made that point loud and clear last week at the AT&T, and he didnt have to say a word. It was just one more explanation point, screaming that Tiger could again reach that lofty level of play and still not approach that victory total.
Im not going to be so foolish as to say he cant win nine times anymore. We all tried that, and he made us into so many liars. People who know golf are skittish about making Tiger predictions. But as he gets ready to tee it up at Riviera this week, Ill just say it like this ' it seems impossible. Notice I said, it seems. Not, it is. But it seems impossible.
It is totally believable that the nine-win season can be pulled off again ' after all, didnt Vijay do it just last year? But Woods only play 18-19 times a year. In 2000 when he won nine, he played only 20. Singh played 28 last year, and that is only a little above average for the PGA Tour. But its a stone-cold fact ' you cant win if you dont enter, and Singh entered eight more times than Woods did in 2000. Its extremely difficult to win nine, but the mathematics of it being done when you play 28 are so much better than when you only enter 20 ' or 18, as Woods did last year. And you can double that when you look at the schedule Woods has chosen to play.
But that is only part of the reason. The other part is - there are so many more excellent golfers out there than there were in 2000.
Right now all the buzz is about Mickelson. Mickelson won the last two weeks ' didnt just win, but totally dominated. The fields at both werent great fields, but neither was exactly cream cheese, either ' Tiger has played at both before. Mickelson won Phoenix by five shots and Pebble Beach by four, shooting a 60 at the FBR and a 62 at Pebble. Unless somebody can stop this runaway train, hes going to win a few more this year. And the wins might very well come at some Tiger tournaments.
The point here isnt to criticize Tiger. The point is to simply inject some reality into some peoples thinking. Tiger may be every bit as good as he was three or four years ago, and still not light it up like he regularly did. The competition has just gotten so much better.
Theres a very real possibility that neither one will be the top player in golf at years end. Remember, if you will, the end of last season remember when everyone was talking about Vijay Singh? Oh yeah ' him. He only won the Sony Championship this year against a pretty decent field. He missed the cut at Pebble, but that likely was an aberration. Singh is still a very good player.
Youve got to save room for a couple of Mike Weir wins this year. Weir was second in the AT&T, and now comes the Nissan, where he has an excellent record, winning the last two.
We havent even mentioned a fella named Ernie Els. We havent even mentioned a fella named Reteif Goosen. And we havent mentioned the two IIIs - Davis Love, who looks like he may have it back again after a finish of T9 last week, or Charles Howell, who has a couple of top threes and, last week, a T11.
Theres the Irishman, Darren Clarke, and his two Brit buds, Lee Westwood and Colin Montgomerie. Theyre going to be around in the States through the Masters, playing regularly on the PGA Tour, giving Woods competition. Stuart Appleby won against the best the PGA Tour has to offer in the Mercedes, then went down south to play in his native Australia for a month.
The sum of it all? Tiger could be a better player this year, better than hes been since 2000, and still not beat the victory drum as often. Mickelson, Singh, et al are going to have to be accommodated in the win department. And it doesnt look like anyone is going to win eight or nine times, especially one who plays only the most difficult tournaments such as Woods does.
I still wonder what would have happened if Woods hadnt had the knee problem that he finally had surgically repaired at the end of 2002. I wonder what would have happened had he not felt the necessity of fixing the swing the last couple of years. I wonder what heights he might have already scaled had not he and swing coach Butch Harmon had their differences since 2002. And I wonder what effect his fathers health problems had on Tiger last year.
Would he have won three or four more tournaments? Five? Seven?
Maybe so. But I suspect that the rest of the tour would have found some way to narrow the gap. Look at Singh, look at Mickelson, look at Els. Tiger has a whole lot of competition now. Time was when he used to enter every tournament as the overwhelming favorite. Now hes just one of four or five people you expect will do well.
The reason? Others have pulled themselves up. And this isnt even touching on the tremendous advances in equipment, which has made such a difference in so many players.
No, it is practically impossible to get that kind of separation among players any longer. Even Tiger Woods knows the kind of dominance he enjoyed in 1999 and 2000 is probably ended. The world is simply too full of world-class golfers.
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