AKRON, Ohio – There might be a better way to head into the week of a major championship, but you’d be hard-pressed to find it.
Fresh off his seven-shot victory at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, Tiger Woods will now make the short commute to Rochester, N.Y., for the PGA Championship, equipped with as much momentum as you could possibly extract from four rounds against the best players in the world.
A winner five times this year, Woods will tee off at the season’s final major as the top-ranked player in the world, leading the PGA Tour this year in wins, earnings, FedEx Cup points, scoring average and the all-around ranking.
It’s an inevitable refrain when discussing any of Woods’ achievements since the summer of 2008. For as many as will now laud the 79-time Tour winner for his recent play, an opposing faction – equally fervent, equally resilient – will demand to see it done on a major stage.
Welcome to the life of Tiger Woods, where lapping an elite field in a WGC event and taking home the $1.5 million winner’s check in the process does nothing to sate your doubters.
Whether right or wrong, golf’s major championships are placed in a stratosphere unto themselves, as are the performances of players in those events. Woods himself has supported this notion on multiple occasions, once again highlighting their importance in his Sunday post-round news conference.
“Those are the events that we try and peak for and try and win,” he explained after walking off the 18th green at Firestone victoriously for the eighth time in his career. “There’s four of them a year.”
With all facets of his game seemingly aligned and with trophy once again in hand, all signs appear to point to Woods claiming a 15th major title six days from now.
The dissenters quickly point out we’ve been down this road before. Woods has won his final start before a major 19 times in his career, and has gone on to win the subsequent major “only” four times (as though a cross-section of data that yields the career major haul of Ernie Els could ever be viewed as a pittance).
More recently, though, the scenario has created fewer results. Woods began three of the past seven majors having won in his prior start, but all he has to show for it is a Dropgate-shrouded tie for fourth this year at the Masters. In 2009, he won prior to each of the season’s four majors and came up empty-handed all four times.
This past week in Akron, though, felt different. It felt dominant. Woods awoke the ghosts of Pebble Beach circa 2000 with his Friday 61, five shots clear of the day’s next-lowest total, then successfully kept the field at arm’s length across the final 36 holes.
His performance this weekend also drew parallels to 2007, a year in which he cleared the field at the South Course by eight shots. He followed that effort up a week later by cruising to a two-shot victory at the PGA Championship at Southern Hills.
“Performance-wise, yeah. Scoring-wise, yeah,” Woods noted when asked if he saw any similarities between his win six years ago and his most recent triumph.
In fact, while the 37-year-old has won before a major several times, this will mark only the fourth instance where he has won exactly one week prior, with the three other occurrences each yielding strong results. In addition to the aforementioned double in 2007, Woods also notched runner-up finishes at the 2002 and 2009 PGA Championships immediately after wins at the Buick Open and WGC-Bridgestone, respectively.
With the top-ranked player in the world clearly rounding into form, this week’s PGA Championship is not lacking for storylines. While Woods’ quest for major No. 15 remains chief among them, three of the next four players in the world rankings behind him have major titles to their credit this season, including British Open champion and world No. 2 Phil Mickelson.
For Woods, though, the repercussions of the next few days cannot be overstated. While he appeared unbeatable for much of the weekend at Firestone, an errant shot or an afternoon spent struggling on the greens could easily result in a missed opportunity in Rochester. That, in turn, would lead to eight months of rampant speculation, with no end in sight until players drive down Magnolia Lane next spring.
The finality of the season’s fourth major can, in that regard, be brutal.
“Do I want it any more? No, it’s the same,” he said Sunday when asked if this week’s upcoming event carries with it an added sense of urgency. “Each and every major, I always want them.”
Over the next three days, Woods will endure a cycle of pre-tournament interrogations that would have remained entirely unchanged regardless of Sunday’s outcome. The fundamental questions lobbed at him will undergo a revision only after he claims a 15th major title, and while you can’t win a tournament on Thursday, you certainly can’t do much to secure the title the Sunday prior.
Recent weekend struggles will be mentioned, as will the speeds of Oak Hill’s greens – surfaces that Woods himself deemed “spotty” on Wednesday – and the 14-time major winner will be forced to face the chasm of time that has passed since his last title, one that now stretches more than five years and grows by the day.
While his overall body of work continues to impress, the few remaining doubts still linger. This week’s PGA Championship offers Woods another opportunity to emphatically silence his dissenters while taking a significant step toward the record he most covets.
Though the end result is yet to be determined, one fact is clear: the dress rehearsal couldn’t have gone any better.