Tiger Woods has reached the back nine of perhaps the most remarkable career in golf history.
When sports historians reference Woods’ accomplishments decades hence, they are likely to refer to pre-op and post-op Tiger, using last June’s reconstructive left knee surgery as a crucial marker.
History suggests the operation will represent the midpoint on Woods’ PGA Tour timeline, a potentiality that also implies Woods will make a mockery of the game’s records by the time he finally closets his clubs.
Several months ago, such a notion seemed absurdly optimistic. Woods’ rehab took place against a backdrop of whispers wondering whether he would ever be the same.
Eight weeks, two wins and seven top 10s into his post-op career — Tiger Part II — most observers have seen enough. Buckle up for the back nine, folks, because the host of this week’s AT&T National is a fiery flatstick away from the best golf of his career.
“On top of everything else, Tiger is the best putter out here and probably the greatest clutch putter in history,” Steve Stricker said after Woods struggled again with the short stick two weeks ago at the U.S. Open. “We all know that sooner or later he’s going to start making everything he stands over.”
On June 16, 2008, a hobbled Woods posted arguably the most heroic victory of his career, defeating Rocco Mediate in a 19-hole playoff at Torrey Pines in the U.S. Open. His 14th major title and 65th PGA Tour victory came on a left leg that had no ACL but did have a tibia that was fractured in two places.
Eight days later, doctors took a tendon from his right hamstring and made him a new left ACL, cleaning up cartilage damage around the knee in the process. Woods was 32 years and six months old.
Why is that meaningful? Other than Woods, there are eight icons in the post-World War II era with six or more majors: Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Nick Faldo. The average age of the eight men when they reached the halfway mark in their victory totals was 32.25 years, with startlingly little distance from that number among them.
That makes Tiger’s surgery a strong candidate to be the midway milepost in his career, assuming he can return to his pre-op form. Scoff if you must, but that also puts the over-under on Tiger’s final career totals at 28 majors and 130 PGA Tour titles — numbers that would obliterate the records in both categories, dwarfing Nicklaus’ 18 majors and Snead’s 82 victories.
“I’m hoping to [pass Nicklaus],” Woods said after notching his second post-op victory at Nicklaus’ Memorial last month. “It’s five [majors] to pass him, four to tie him. That’s a lot. Most of the guys in my generation haven’t won more than three. So it’s quite a challenge. There’s no doubt about it.
“I probably wouldn’t have had as good a chance to put myself in position to tie or pass — whatever it may be — if I hadn’t had the surgery. My leg was deteriorating the past couple of years. I’m healthy enough where I think I can give it a go.”
His post-op performance suggests as much. Perhaps skeptics would dismiss Tiger’s two wins in eight starts this season as below his winning percentages from the previous four seasons. Perhaps they will oversimplify and refer to his sixth-place finishes at the Masters and U.S. Open as an “0-for-2” start in the majors. They undoubtedly will point to his 2009 statistics and lament his continued power outage and his tumble from his customary perch in greens in regulation, where he ranks 67th after three consecutive years at No. 1.
But those skeptics would be relying on skewed statistics. Woods has been able to pound balls after rounds on his gradually strengthening knee only in the past month.
“I was able to start hitting more balls after a round at Memorial,” Woods said at the U.S. Open. “I was able to have a practice session, not just go hit a couple of balls. … To get better at this game, you have to put in the time. You can’t just think about it and magically get better each and every day. You have to do the work.”
And that work has begun to pay dividends. Not only is Woods starting to regain his power and distance off the tee with the club that suffered the most when his knee was deteriorating (2005-08) and then slowly healing (earlier this season), he has begun to hit more greens as his practice sessions have expanded.
In the two tournaments he has played since he began to log more range time (the Memorial and U.S. Open), Woods hit 53 and 48 greens — 70.1 percent. That would rank third on tour, is in line with his standard success in the category and is likely to be far closer to what he’ll do going forward than his early season numbers, which were affected by rust, weakness and an inability to practice.
Strangely, the club that has tormented Woods this season is the one that requires no ACL to wield, the instrument that has defined his greatness more than any other: his putter.
“I striped it [all] week,” Woods said after a balky putter condemned him to a tie for sixth at Bethpage Black. “I hit it just like I did at Memorial, and unfortunately I didn’t make anything.”
When Woods said he isn’t making “anything,” he wasn’t exaggerating by much. On putts between 15 and 20 feet, Woods ranks 131st, connecting on only 15.8 percent of his opportunities. On putts between 20 and 25 feet, he has been even worse, making just 7.4 percent (154th). Those are scoring putts, the kind that turn a 69 or 70 into a 66 or 67.
What are the odds that a man with his platinum putting stroke will continue producing results like a 10-handicapper with Delirium Tremens? As Stricker said, Woods is going to start dropping those putts. And when he does, watch out, because the golf world could be transported back to the last time Woods stood on two completely healthy legs and unloaded his entire arsenal of shots on the game.
From 2000 to 2002, Woods won 19 times and claimed six of the 12 majors, including the unparalleled Tiger Slam.
Harbingers of the coming storm already exist. Woods comes to Congressional boasting a career-best streak of 18 consecutive top-10 finishes in stroke-play tournaments dating to the 2007 British Open. That’s golf’s new definition of consistent excellence.
If he actually starts making putts, they might just retire the sport.