Tiger Woods control returning
No one is surprised when Tiger Woods wins a golf tournament.
One reason he left Muirfield Village so satisfied with his second victory of the year is that Woods wasn’t surprised, either.
What most people will remember about his 7-under 65 in the final round of the Memorial, which allowed him to make up a four-shot deficit, is the flawless finish. In a four-way tie for the lead as he stood on the 17th tee, Woods closed with two birdies, from 9 feet to take the lead, and a 7-iron from 183 yards to a foot that will become part of Memorial lore.
Woods, however, has a longer memory.
“It wasn’t just the last two holes,” he said. “It was all week.”
He only missed five fairways at Muirfield Village, matching his most accurate tournament off the tee in his 13 years on tour (he also hit 49 fairways at the 1998 Masters).
Woods twice hit powerful drives down the middle of the fairway on the par-5 15th on the weekend, both times leading to birdie. On the par-5 fifth Saturday, with enough breeze in his face that 3-wood wasn’t quite enough, he choked up 2 inches on a driver and hit a baby cut, setting up another easy birdie. In the worst of the wind, he controlled the flight of his irons.
“I didn’t really have a problem hitting it either way,” Woods said. That’s when you feel like you’re in control of what you’re doing.”
Then came the most telling comment of all.
“I didn’t hit any surprises out there,” he said.
Nothing bothers Woods more than the double miss, not knowing whether an errant shot is going left or right. That’s what he took to the first tee in the final round at the Masters, and at The Players Championship. He didn’t finish either of those tournaments very well, leading to speculation that his game was not where it should be.
Just because he won the Memorial in his final tournament before the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black is no reason for the other 155 players to stay home in two weeks.
Remember, the hype was cranked up after Woods won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in his final tune-up before the Masters. A month later, some made it sound as though he was in a slump.
But there was something different about Memorial.
“If you look at how I won at Bay Hill, I only had 101 putts,” he said. “Anyone who has 100 putts should win a tournament. I didn’t do it the way I did this week.”
What he had been missing was the ability to hit balls after his rounds, which Woods had not done for a year before surgery as ligaments in his left knee eroded. That changed last month, when he went to the range for two days at Quail Hollow, more often at The Players Championship, then a lot more at home.
“My practice sessions started getting longer at home,” he said. “Hit more balls, play more golf, all these things. People don’t realize you need to do that. You need to have that ability. You can’t just think about your swing and how to be great the next day. I needed to do the reps and do some good practice sessions this past couple of weeks. It came together this week.”
It’s no different from any other player, or any other sport.
A basketball fan and longtime friend of Michael Jordan, Woods earlier in the week recalled some hours he spent with Jordan in the gym feeding him the ball.
“He would just shoot all night,” Woods said. “We thought that, ‘Yeah, he just showed up to the game and off he went and scored 45 and went home.’ You don’t realize what he did to prepare for that.”
With his victory at the Memorial, Woods now has won 20 of his last 40 tournaments worldwide over the last three years. All it takes is a tournament or two without winning, especially when he has a chance on the back nine as he did his previous three events, and his game falls under more scrutiny than any other player.
Nicklaus went through that, too.
“One year I won eight or nine tournaments and they said, ‘What’s wrong with Nicklaus? He didn’t win a major?’ I finish second in three of them, but I didn’t win. So I’m in a slump,” Nicklaus said.
His numbers were slightly off. He never won more than seven times on the PGA Tour in a single year, although he did finish runner-up three times in the majors in 1964. But you get the point.
“He goes through the same thing,” Nicklaus said. “It’s the same thing every time. You just really can’t pay much attention to it. You’ve just got to go about and do what you do. That’s what he’s been doing.”
Ask any athlete about the public’s expectations, and most will say their expectations are even higher.
Woods might be an exception.
“My expectations … I had to lower them a little bit because I knew I couldn’t practice when I wanted to and I couldn’t do all the things I used to be able to do,” he said. “It was just a matter of time before my practice sessions started getting long enough, and I started building my confidence through that. And here we are.”
That should make him a big favorite at Bethpage Black. If you don’t think so, just ask Jack.
At the trophy presentation, Nicklaus said he suspected that Woods’ 15 career major would come in a couple of weeks.
“If he drives the ball this way, and plays this way, I’m sure it will,” Nicklaus said. “And if not, it will surprise me greatly.”
June 9, 2009