AKRON, Ohio – Tiger Woods returns to Firestone Country Club this week, site of a touchdown on his personal scoreboard of 74 career PGA Tour victories. One more and his extra point becomes a two-point conversion, apropos of almost nothing, other than this being Pro Football Hall of Fame weekend here in the Northeast Ohio area.
Much like the most celebrated gridiron greats, Woods can’t find the end zone every time – even on what could substitute as a decided home field advantage.
The analogies and puns can end here, but so has his domination at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Two years ago, mired in the worst season of his career, he finished in a share of 78th place out of the 80 competitors who finished four rounds; last year, in his first tournament after being sidelined three months due to injury, he came in a middling T-37.
If that doesn’t appear like enough to sound the alarm in Camp Woods, well, that’s because it isn’t – nor should it be. Tiger is cruising along this season with three wins and five other top-25 results in 13 starts so far; below the norm for his career, yes, but above the norm for those of everyone else.
It should serve as a testament to the lack of duress facing Woods right now that the most strife he’s incurring is the fact that he hasn’t won one of three (or four, or five, depending on your count) World Golf Championship events since all the way back in 2009.
OK, so maybe that’s not entirely true…
There is the little case of Woods failing to claim a major since one year earlier, the historic victory at the 2008 U.S. Open leaving him with 14 in perpetuity – or at least until he beats perpetuity in a playoff.
So far this year he failed to break par in any round at the Masters; turned a title contention entering the weekend at the U.S. Open into a share of 21st place; and got into the mix at the Open Championship, finishing T-3.
For a player who so often maintains that he wants to “peak four times each year” and ranks his place in history based on major championship wins, the questions remain: How does he quantify a successful season? And if he doesn’t win a major this year, can it still be considered a success?
“Well, I've said this many times in the past: Winning golf tournaments makes it successful, but winning a major makes it a great year,” Woods said Wednesday. “You can go from having a so-so year to all of a sudden winning one major, and all of a sudden it's a great year, because you're part of history when you do something like that.
“[Open Championship winner] Ernie [Els] has been consistent this year. I think that he would attest to that he's playing better, but then all of a sudden it just jumps you into a different category.”
Woods has one remaining opportunity to elevate his season into that category and it will come at next week’s PGA Championship. On Tuesday, he practiced at The Ocean Course, turning what was a great unknown into a little less of an unknown.
“It's going to be long,” he confided. “I mean, I think it's going to be close to 7,700 yards, and that's a big ballpark. A lot of the holes are crosswind holes. … Having paspalum greens is different. I've only played on paspalum greens one time. But they drain great. They're going to be firm.”
What makes this week unique for Woods is that unlike each of the year’s first three majors, he annually tees it up in competition directly before playing the PGA. At stake is an eighth career win at Firestone and a fourth win this season and an opportunity to regain the No. 1 ranking in the world.
Perhaps more importantly, though, it’s a chance to get himself into position to claim that elusive 15th major title next week – the one thing that would turn this season, under his own definition from a successful campaign to a great one.
And he’s well aware, of course. When asked to elucidate his thoughts on the difference between the two and whether a three-win, no major season would be eclipsed by those whose lone victory was a major, a wide grin came across his face.
With thoughts squarely on winning not only this week but next week as well, Woods declared in his own inimitable style: “It’s not over yet.”