PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – His personal scandal, the one that rocked the tabloids for months on end, has long since faded from the headlines.
His divorce was finalized 18 months ago.
His knee injury – along with any other aches and pains – has been rehabilitated and healed.
His swing changes have taken effect, appearing more fluid with every round.
The ebbs and flows, ups and downs of Tiger Woods’ career over the past two-plus years have been caused by varying degrees of emotional, mental, technical and physical anguish. There may never be a time – not for Woods, not for anybody – when all such aspects are completely flawless, but it’s difficult to argue that the symphony between them hasn’t produced a melody like this in years.
And so with everything back to normal – or at least as “normal” as things get for him – there’s only one proper conclusion going forward.
It’s time for Woods to do what he does best. It’s time for him to win.
This is less instruction than observation, just the natural progression of his continued comeback. Woods has often talked about his return being a “process” and the next logical step is to win his first official tournament title since November of 2009.
Sure, throughout the cacophony of lowlights since that time, there have been highlights, too. He helped the United States to a Presidents Cup victory. He won his own Chevron World Challenge, an event that carries unofficial status, but official world ranking points. In his last two official starts – at last year’s Australian Open and this year’s Abu Dhabi Championship – he finished in third place.
All are signs that Woods’ gradual journey toward success is nearing its destination.
This week he will make his U.S. season debut at the AT&T National Pro-Am, a tournament he won in 2000 – along with the U.S. Open at this same venue later that year – but hasn’t played since 2002. His winless streak in official PGA Tour events now stands at 22 starts spanning 27 months, easily the longest respective such periods of his professional career.
Woods has long maintained that he only feels internal pressure, that no measure of tension applied from fellow players, sponsors, media or fans will overrule the pressure he applies to himself. When asked on Tuesday whether that internal pressure is weighing heavier than it did earlier in his career, when the wins were easier to come by, he insisted that it wasn’t.
“I feel very at peace where I’m at,” he explained. “I had to make some changes and that took time, and I’m starting to see the results of that now, which is great. My last four events, I’ve really played well. So I’m just building on that. Everything’s headed in the right direction.”
For most players, “headed in the right direction” would be good enough. Signals toward optimism permeate the practice range prior to the start of each tournament, with every competitor searching for a secret in the dirt and hoping they’ve found it.
If there’s a difference between Tiger and his fellow professionals, though, it’s in the expectation level. And it makes sense. Others have built borderline Hall of Fame careers based on an average of one victory per year. Such numbers pale in comparison to those of Woods, who compiled 71 official wins in his first 14 seasons as a PGA Tour member.
As a result, strong finishes may serve as a barometer for future performances, but they’re still considered failures. Woods has always lived by the Ricky Bobby mantra, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” He’s fond of talking about how all that matters is the “W.” He’d rather that didn’t stand for “waterloo” any longer.
It shouldn’t. Now 36, he believes knowledge in how to win should inherently assist him in reaching that plateau once again.
“I think I understand how to get my ball around the golf course better,” he said. “I’m far better at managing my game now than I was at 26, just like I can say at 16 versus 26. I keep understanding how to play the game.”
There’s no doubt that Woods is making the turn in his career. He’s endured a brief intermission, but is now back on course, playing the back nine. That doesn’t mean the second half of his career will equal the accomplishments in the first half, but it does mean that he’s ready to find the winner’s circle.
After the anarchy that derailed his personal and professional lives over the past few years, it finally feels like business as usual once again. Woods’ usual business is winning golf tournaments. That time is here once again.
Watch first- and second-round coverage of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am Thursday and Friday on Golf Channel, 3-6PM ET.