CHARLOTTE, N.C. – At this juncture, one could argue that Tiger Woods’ only competition is with himself.
Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed and the rest of today’s cast of stars provide all of the competition one could ask for, but that’s allowing yourself to become a prisoner of the moment.
This isn’t about the week-to-week challenges Tiger may face so much as it is finding a realistic standard that would allow some sort of meaningful comparison when you consider that currently the top 10 players in the World Golf Ranking have won a combined 12 major titles to Woods’ 14.
Sure, that four-pack of missing majors to match Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 Grand Slam tilts – and the more attainable goal of matching Sam Snead on the all-time PGA Tour victory list (he currently trails Slammin’ Sammy by three trophies) – are the most often cited examples of Woods’ career scorecard, but before the golden years finally arrive for Tiger the only real competitive comparisons will be against himself.
How, for example, would the 2000 version, you know the guy who won the U.S. Open by two touchdowns, stack up against this most recent iteration? Or the 2006 Tiger, who won more than 50 percent of his starts (8 of 15), fare against the 2013 model, who literally winced his way to five Tour titles and his last Player of the Year trophy?
It’s a compelling exercise because Woods has made it so.
Since returning from back fusion surgery last year Woods, who is poised to make his first start since the Masters at this week’s Wells Fargo Championship, has contended for titles at the Valspar Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational, defying perhaps even his own lofty goals and creating a frenzy of expectations, be they realistic or otherwise.
It’s Woods’ demeanor and confidence that’s largely fueled this narrative, the idea that he could somehow return to something close to those early editions that re-wrote record books and dominated the game like no other player.
It’s also been his words.
“I'm seeing speeds and velocities I hadn't seen since my early 20s, which is nice because I was long then relatively speaking,” he said on Wednesday following his pro-am at Quail Hollow Club.
Although it’s difficult to fully quantify because the Tour didn’t keep radar statistics like they do now when Woods joined the circuit in the late 1990s, he recently figured that in his prime his club head speed was about 126 mph with a 43 1/2–inch driver shaft and he was always among the game’s longest players off the tee.
During the Valspar Championship in March he recorded the year’s fastest club head speed on Saturday at 129.2 mph, and he currently ranks third on Tour with a 121.9 mph average club head speed.
In 2013, when he was dealing with ongoing back issues, he ranked 28th with a 118.3 club head speed, while in ’08, the year he won his last major championship, he had a 124 mph average.
But then club head speed is far from the ultimate benchmark for success. A more objective way of estimating how the 24 year old would match up against the 42 year old could boil down to simple math.
Woods’ fourth full year on Tour was by far his statistical high-water mark. He averaged 298 yards off the tee (second on Tour), hit 71.2 percent of his fairways, 75 percent of his greens in regulation and had a 67.7 scoring average. He also won nine times.
In 2006, he was longer (306 yard average) but hit fewer fairways (60.7 percent), greens (74 percent) and his scoring average climbed to 68.1; and that trend continued in ’13 with a 293-yard driving average, just 62.5 percent of his fairways and a 68.9 stroke average.
In a limited sample size - Woods has played just six events this season - his 2018 statistics compare favorably with ’13 and ’06. This season he’s averaging 302 yards off the tee and is hitting 51.9 percent of his fairways, although his scoring average has ballooned to 69.8.
Lost in these comparisons, however, is what Woods now brings to the table. His short game has been vintage Tiger and his putting average (1.74) is statistically similar to 2013 (1.73).
Most importantly he understands better than ever what it takes to win, but he’s yet to prove the importance of that element when it counts on a Sunday.
If Nicklaus’ 18 majors provided motivation for Woods as a child growing up in Cypress, Calif., these new standards are what now must drive him. If statistically he’s well off the historic pace he set in 2000 - and he is well off that pace - the 2013 season, or maybe even ’06, provides a more realistic, and perhaps with time even attainable, measurement.
Maybe the modern, rebuilt version of Tiger would never have a chance against that ’00 goliath who won three legs of the single-season Grand Slam; or even the ’06 buzz saw who won his last seven starts of the year, but when you’ve accomplished everything that Woods has it might be the only competition that makes any sense.