Tiger Woods marched up the 18th fairway at Doral on Sunday with a three-shot lead, his ball in the right rough and behind some spindly trees, the green a mile away, modest waves lapping its shores. Waiting for him greenside were Tom and Jerry (Tim Finchem and Donald Trump in this incarnation), a check for $1.5 million and (figuratively speaking) a thick, gaudy belt with a new notch for win number 76. That's a staggering number, and we have been alive to see it. Lucky us.
Back in the rough, the Doral galleries—galleries like no other on Tour, a United Nations of spectators—were crowding in on Tiger's ball. Woods has never been much of a people person. His playing partner, Graeme McDowell, played first, and about 10 seconds later Woods chipped his ball out of the tangly Bermuda rough and to the privacy of mid-fairway, eager to get this one done and to take on whatever comes next. He closed with a bogey and won by two over his putting teacher, Steve Stricker. What, you were expecting him to pull a Jean van de Velde?
A year ago at Doral, Woods didn't even finish his Sunday round in the WGC Cadillac Championship, getting a cart ride to the parking lot from the 12th tee when his left Achilles tendon started to bother him. At that point, he was still looking for his first Tour win since running over a hydrant in November 2009. Since that 2012 walk-off, Woods has won five times, last year at Bay Hill and Muirfield Village and Congressional, this year at Torrey Pines and Doral. Nobody's won more in that period. He's healthy. (Doral was his third straight tournament.) He's happy. (He walked to greens last week twirling his putter like a baton.) He's....
No, we're not going to invoke the b-word. He's not back. For the millionth time, there is no "back." Too much has happened, in too many ways to recount here.
What there is now is a man named Tiger Woods, age 37, a single father with split custody of two young children who is once again the best player in the world, no matter what some computer-generated formula might tell you. Yes, we know: Officially, Rory McIlroy is No. 1. If Tiger wins his next start, at Bay Hill later this month, he regains possession of his old, and essentially meaningless, mantle. The point is that Woods is again better than everyone else.
You should also know that he's less better than everyone else than he used to be. In every category, there's somebody who does something better than he does. Dustin Johnson, for instance, is a better driver. Stricker is a better putter. Luke Donald is a better chipper. Sergio García hits better irons. Woods used to own all of those categories. He owned the categories, he owned the players.
But Woods's golfing IQ has never been higher, even if "he doesn't have the 350-yard bomb like he used to," as McDowell said last week. Woods has a sort of fade swing he's still learning. ("It's more consistent, day in and day out," he said.) He has a new informal putting coach in Stricks. (McDowell on Stricker's tutoring services: "That was nice of him. I'm sure he's regretting that lesson right now.") He has a private life still shrouded in privacy.
No significant other greeted Woods in victory. His children, his five-year-old daughter, Sam, and his four-year-old son, Charlie, were not around and neither was his mother. "It's different," Woods said, describing how the meaning of wins has changed over the years. "When I won tournaments when my dad was sick and when my dad passed and was dead, there was a different type of feeling. And then when I won the Open with Sam there for the first time [in 2008], that was different. We have our parents, and then the next thing you know we become parents. It's the evolutionary process, and that's how the wins have evolved." You're listening, it should be noted, to a man who has evolved.
Will Woods win at Bay Hill? The chances are excellent. Will he win at Augusta National next month? That's an entirely different question.
For Tiger, and for every golfer, winning begets winning. But what we saw last year is that Tiger's brilliant play at Arnold Palmer's tournament in March and at Jack Nicklaus's tournament in June did not carry over into his majors.