SAN FRANCISCO – He shot a Sunday 62 at the Honda Classic. He won convincingly at Bay Hill.
But he still hadn’t blown your mind with a preposterous hole-out, the kind that made him the greatest show in sports, the kind they replay over and over, the kind that trumps windmill dunks and diving catches on top-10 plays of the day, the week and the month.
And then it happened at the Memorial on the 16th hole, Jack Nicklaus calling it the best shot under the circumstances he’s ever seen. Ever. Jack’s seen his share over half a century. That one staggered him.
So Tiger Woods is close. But he’s not truly back, all the way back, until he’s winning majors.
That’s all that’s left now.
“I think even if I do win a major championship it will still be you’re not to 18 yet or when will you get to 19,” said Woods, the chip on his shoulder as sharp as any he’s hit in practice rounds at Olympic. “I’ve dealt with that my entire career, ever since I was an amateur and playing all the way through and to professional golf, it hasn’t changed.
“Jack did it at 46, right? So I’ve got 10 years. And that’s the great thing about staying in shape and lifting weights and being fit is that playing careers have been extended.”
Steve Stricker likes what he sees.
“It looks like Tiger’s getting a little bit of his swagger back,” Stricker said. “He’s gaining confidence and it’s good to see.”
Keep in mind, though, that expectations were nearly as high for Tiger heading to the Masters off his Bay Hill victory. But then he played poorly at Augusta National.
“I got back into a lot of my old patterns,” he explained. “Unfortunately it didn’t work out. But that’s what made playing Muirfield so nice is that I had those shots and I was doing it the correct way. And I had the compression, hitting the ball high and hitting it long. That was fun.”
Thursday figures to be fun for sports fans with Tiger and Phil Mickelson in the morning then LeBron James and Kevin Durant at night. And while Tiger can’t jump as high as LeBron he can make the television ratings go through the roof. Tiger’s Sunday Memorial victory spiked 138 percent over the previous year’s final round with Stricker winning.
“You know the day after Memorial in the paper USA Today had him on the front page” Stricker said. “So that tells you what he brings to our sport. Even if he plays poorly, people are tuned in to see what he’s doing. It helps when he plays well.”
Tiger played Tuesday with his old Stanford teammate, Casey Martin, in what may have been one of the most photographed practice rounds in history.
“You just look at Casey and he’s always so happy,” Tiger said. “It’s very easy to go the other way and be very bitter. But I think that’s what makes him so special. He has such a strong will and such a strong spirit.”
Martin coaches the golf team at the University of Oregon. He’s on the recruiting trail for the best young talent in the game.
“I get to go and watch all the top players come up,” Martin said. “I watch them when they’re young and no disrespect to anybody that I’ve seen, but there’s no one even close that was like Tiger.”
Unquestionably, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson have considerable game. We’ve seen that. But they simply don’t have the extra gear that Tiger had or the consistent focus.
Will we see it again? Will we ever see what we witnessed the last time he won a major, four years ago at Torrey Pines, when he made two eagles on Saturday? Suddenly it doesn’t feel like a remote possibility.
Tiger likes the way Olympic sets up with a premium on shaping shots. But as is so often the case, his success will likely hinge on how well he putts. Can he make 6-footers for par? That’s what he always did so well. That’s what wins U.S. Opens.
That’s what will bring Tiger all the way back, back on track to Jack.
“I’m excited about playing,” he said. “I’m excited about this golf course.”