PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – With spectacular flame-outs all around him – Jeff Maggert rinsing his 71st tee shot, Ryan Palmer thrashing about in the pine straw, Sergio Garcia self-immolating on the final two holes – Tiger Woods did not deviate from his game plan at The Players.
Put away the driver. Find the fairway. Hit the center of the green.
In grueling, U.S. Open-like conditions, boring golf is beautiful golf.
Late Sunday, when a few “well-influenced” fans alerted Woods on 18 tee of the carnage behind him, he responded with a nod. Then he ripped a 5-wood shot 286 yards down the left side of the fairway, apparently oblivious to the watery stuff waiting to swallow an off-line tee ball.
In the end, his prize – far more significant, of course, than getting in the last word against a petulant Sergio Garcia – was a fourth title this season, another unmistakable salvo, a wheelbarrow full of cash ($1.71 million) and a very impressed girlfriend. (Lindsey Vonn’s tweet: “Woooo hoooo!!!! He did it!!!!!”)
The last time Woods sat in this media center with the winner’s crystal was 2001. The Players that year was in March. In his next start, the then-25-year-old slipped into his second green jacket, the third victory in a five-win season.
Those two players – Tiger 2001 and Tiger 2013 – are incomparable. The injuries, the frailties, the scandal, the resurgence. We can’t go back. We know too much now.
But this much is unchanged through the years: Woods knows how to win, emphatically, and how to do so at an unprecedented clip.
“I know a lot of people in this room thought I was done,” the 37-year-old said. “But I’m not.”
Woods now has four wins, and it’s only mid-May. The last time he did that was 2000. Of course, that year he went on to win nine times, including three majors. He tacked on the fourth, the completion of the Tiger Slam, in spring 2001.
His victory Sunday was his seventh in his last 22 PGA Tour starts, a ridiculous winning percentage of 31.8. His career winning percentage, if you were curious, is now 27.2 (78 wins in 286 starts). This new Tiger is pretty good, too.
Woods was in a three-way tie for the lead when he began the fourth round, and his closing 70 was enough for a two-shot victory over three players. His conversion rate when holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead now sits at 52 for 56. Even New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is envious.
In the afterglow of his stirring victory, it’s easy to forget that Woods has struggled mightily at Sawgrass since his last victory here, in ’01. One top 10 and two withdrawals. As many finishes outside the top 20 (four) as inside.
“This golf course has been a little bit tricky over the years,” he said, “and I’m not the only one who has struggled with it.”
So what changed?
The two keys, Woods said, were controlling his trajectory in the swirling winds and working the ball both ways. When he missed the greens – he was T-3 for the week in GIRs, hitting more than 76 percent – he left himself in easier spots from which to get up and down. One of the few times he short-sided himself (No. 15 Sunday), he played a delicate pitch and sank an 8-footer for par. Don’t forget, he’s also No. 1 on Tour in putting.
“He’s always hit it really good, and now he’s starting to get that putter back to the way it was in 2000,” Brandt Snedeker said. “It didn’t seem like he missed a putt for two years, and he’s kind of getting that feeling back again.”
OK, so his putter is behaving once again. But for years, the main criticism Woods has endured is his wildness off the tee. You never could tell when Woods was about to hit a vicious snap-hook, or a wild block slice. That point is rendered moot, however, when he employs a conservative game plan, as he did at Sawgrass.
Only once in the final round here did he unsheath his driver, and that came on the par-5 11th, which features one of the widest fairways on the course. Other than that, it was a steady diet of 3-irons and 15- and 19-degree fairway woods that traveled anywhere between 250 and 315 yards.
Clearly, the strategy worked – it was the first time since 2003 that he carded four under-par rounds at TPC. He finished at 13-under 275.
“We’re all playing from the same spots,” Woods said. “It’s just how you get there.”
Approaching his second full year with instructor Sean Foley, Woods has a better, firmer, tighter grasp on his game, his pop-up, chunk-hook into the pond on 14 notwithstanding. His scaled-back strategy at Sawgrass was reminiscent of his victory at Hoylake in the 2006 British Open. Back then, he hit only one driver all week (in the first round) and bludgeoned the fast, fiery links with impeccable iron play.
Well, that toned-down approach also figures to suit Woods at Merion, host of this year’s U.S. Open. With a blend of long and short holes, the classic layout boasts only two par 5s, and through the first 13 holes, there are nine potential wedge opportunities.
“Merion is looking pretty good for Tiger,” NBC analyst Johnny Miller said on the telecast. “I almost feel like he is playing Merion right now with all of the layups and the conservative shots and positioning. It looks like he’s getting ready for it right now.”
Woods, it should be noted, has never played Merion. He doesn’t know what to expect in four weeks. But there’s no reason to suggest why he can’t turn the 6,996-yard track into target practice, wearing a new sweet spot into his long irons and fairway woods.
“It sounds good in theory,” Woods said, when asked about employing a similar strategy at the upcoming Open, “but I don’t know. You’ve got to play the golf course for what it gives you.”
In Tigerspeak, that means letting his opponents self-destruct, like they did Sunday. It means playing more boring, beautiful golf, like Woods did Sunday.
After all, that’s the kind that he prefers, that he has nearly perfected.
Good thing, because it’s the kind of golf that Merion will demand.