DUBLIN, Ohio – Not since 2009 have the expectations been this high, and maybe not since that late spring four years ago has the hyperbole been so justified.
For the first time in his historic career, Tiger Woods begins the week at Jack’s place with four Tour bottle caps already on the shelf this calendar. Not in 2000, when he won nine times and the front end of the “Tiger Slam”; not in 2008, when he collected eight Tour titles and a U.S. Open on one leg; not in ’09, when he won six times and lost his first major (PGA) when leading through 54 holes.
As Paul Goydos once famously figured, Woods is once again the most underrated player in the game, and for good reason in spite of runaway expectations entering the year’s second major.
Critics will nitpick, pointing out his victories at the Farmers Insurance Open in January and WGC-Cadillac Championship in March weren’t exactly walk-offs. But that fixation on Woods’ late stumbles in both events is a disservice that confuses execution with ego.
When his career is over, the record books will not add up the “pretty” wins and discard those of lesser quality.
Some even suggest that victories on friendly confine venues (Torrey Pines, Doral and Bay Hill) aren’t the best gauge of long-term success, but that conveniently ignores his Sawgrass special earlier this month when he punched his way to his first Players victory since 2001 largely with fairway woods and wedges.
Even his most ardent detractors will struggle not to grasp the elephant in the room; not since 2009 has Woods been this poised, in body and mind, to dominate when it counts – at a major.
Back in 2009, Woods arrived in Ohio having won at Bay Hill (sound familiar?), and scorched the field with a closing 65 at Muirfield Village that included a filthy 49 of 56 fairways hit for the week.
Bring on Bethpage, were the not-so-subtle undertones; much like this week’s focus is squarely on Merion and next month’s U.S. Open.
Three of the first four questions during Woods’ Wednesday meet and greet with the media were about Merion, which he visited on Tuesday on his way to the Memorial.
With apologies to the Memorial, Woods’ play the last four months has created a collective ADD that is completely understandable.
“If (Merion) dries out and plays firm and fast it will be very similar to what we play in the sand belt (of Australia),” Woods said.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Woods will be able to pick apart Merion like he did the Stadium Course earlier this month, opting for 3- and 5-woods off many tees and playing angles, not attack.
It’s worked before (see Open, British 2006), and there is a level of confidence with his Sean Foley swing that we haven’t seen since, well, 2009.
“I feel confident with the motion,” Woods said. “In all the stretches where I played well, I felt good about what I was able to do and I was able to fix it on the fly. ... The work with Sean now is more about alignment.”
For good measure, Foley walked with Woods during his Wednesday pro-am at Muirfield Village and the extent of their work was on alignment. That he is healthy – the last event Woods withdrew from with injury was the 2012 Cadillac – and happy also adds to the enthusiastic equation.
All of which makes the runaway expectations so expected.
There are no assurances in golf. They tend to play all 72 regardless of the betting line and even the best scripts are subject to last-minute edits by karma.
It was 2009, after all, when Woods bolted the Memorial riding what seemed like an unstoppable wave of momentum. But rains and Lucas Glover happened at the Bethpage Open, and he ended up on the wrong side of the forecast at Turnberry, Y.E. Yang at Hazeltine National and life in November.
Paper lions are subject to the same capriciousness as longshots, regardless of pedigree. But those truths do little to diminish the unbridled expectations that have been caused by Woods’ scorching start.
When Woods won that one-legged Open in 2008 at Torrey Pines, Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships seemed one surgery and a few weeks of physical rehab away.
The possibilities in 2009 seemed limitless, much like they do now. Hype doesn’t get you into the Hall of Fame, but it certainly makes things more interesting.