Tiger Woods has reclaimed the No. 1 ranking in the world that once seemed his in perpetuity. The debate on whether he is officially “back” is at full throttle.
Woods, however, says the debate is moot.
“I don’t want to become as good as I once was,” he said. “No, I don’t. I want to become better.”
Being better required at least getting back to No. 1, and Woods did that when he won at Bay Hill – his sixth win in 20 starts since winning at Arnold Palmer’s place in 2012.
On Nov. 6, 2011 – barely a year after relinquishing his record 281-week chokehold on the No. 1 ranking – Woods fell to No. 58. He hadn’t been ranked that low since Oct. 13, 1996, when he was No. 61 on the week between his first (Las Vegas) and second (Disney) victories in the two months after turning professional.
From 1997 through 2010, Woods spent 623 weeks at No. 1. Other than a brief five-week stretch at No. 3 in 2004, he hadn’t been ranked outside the top two spots from May 1997 to January 2011 despite making two major swing changes.
The third swing change with Sean Foley, starting late in 2010, forced a larger step back. At his relative rock bottom at No. 58, critics wondered whether Woods could ever regain his former glory. Woods said he never doubted himself and understood the circumstances that dropped him to his low point through 2010-11.
“It happened to be a perfect storm where I was making a swing change, and I was hurt and I couldn’t devote any time to it,” he said, neglecting to mention the personal crisis that also brought some rough seas. “And the (swing) philosophies are so different that I needed time, and I didn’t have the ability to practice and spend the hours I needed to on my game. Once I was able to do that, slowly but surely, I started to gain momentum, and here we are.”
WITH FIVE PGA TOUR victories in 19 starts since breaking his two-year slump at Bay Hill in 2012, Woods had the chance to reclaim the No. 1 ranking from Rory McIlroy with another win at Bay Hill in March. A two-shot triumph over Justin Rose did just that.
“Well, it’s been a long process,” he said before Bay Hill. “To gradually work my way back, that’s something I’m proud of. I’ve got five wins in the last couple of years, and that’s something, as I said, I’m very proud of. We’re still getting better. Things are still becoming more efficient.”
To be either “as good as” or “better” than he once was, Woods will have to start winning majors again and resume his quest to catch Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18. That effort has been stalled since winning the U.S. Open in 2008 and immediately undergoing knee surgery. Injuries have cost him four major starts since – two in 2008 and two more in ’11.
“One thing I did take for granted was the ability to be able to play a full schedule,” Woods said. “There were times when it was pretty easy. Then when I was out, it was frustrating. I think ’08 was probably the hardest year because it was the first time I’ve missed major championships. That stung quite a bit.”
Woods has never missed the Masters, though he has gone 0-for-7 at Augusta since winning his fourth green jacket in 2005.
Nicklaus never had a drought that long as he won five green jackets in his first 17 Masters starts. He won his record sixth Masters at age 46, 11 years after his previous win at Augusta. He never went more than two full seasons without a major win until after he won his 17th major in 1980.
Even during Woods’ Masters “drought,” he’s rarely been far off the lead. He finished no worse than sixth from 2006-11, his only poor finish being a tie for 40th last year.
“It’s been one of those things where I’ve been close there so many times on that back nine on Sunday, and I just haven’t won,” he said.
OF ALL THOSE near-misses, including runner-up finishes in 2007 and ’08, his third-place finish behind Phil Mickelson in 2006 was the toughest to swallow. His father, Earl Woods, died less than a month later, and Woods desperately wanted his father to see him win one more major.
“That one hurt the most of any tournament that I have failed to win,” Woods said. “I’ve lost tournaments before, and I’ve been through some tough defeats over the years, but nothing like that because I knew my dad would never live to see another major championship. At the time, going into that final round and on the back nine, as I admitted to you guys, I pressed and I tried to make putts instead of just allowing it to happen, I tried to force it. I know he was at home watching, and just really wanted to have him be a part of one last major championship victory. And I didn’t get it done.
“It hurt quite a bit. Obviously, I didn’t do very good at Winged Foot that year, but I won the British Open, and it’s one of the reasons why I bawled like a little baby is that he was never going to be there again.”
Woods seems poised to end his major slumber this season. Seven previous times in his career Woods has won multiple tour events before the Masters, and in six of those seasons he’s gone on to win a major. His wins at Torrey Pines, Doral and Bay Hill this season forecast good things.
“Any time I can win prior to Augusta, it always feels good,” Woods said.
“I felt that towards the end of last year that I was heading that direction where things were becoming better. I look at the three venues that I won last year (Bay Hill, Muirfield Village and Congressional), they were all three very good golf courses. That gave me so much confidence heading into the offseason that I was heading in the right direction. Just keep going, keep plugging along, keep working with the things that Sean wants me to do, and lo and behold, I’ve had two really good weeks this year.”
Woods is only five career wins behind Sam Snead’s record 82 and despite everything is still on pace with Nicklaus in the majors.
At age 37 in his 17th tour season, Woods has 77 victories, including 14 majors. Nicklaus was 39 at the same stage of his career in 1979, with 67 wins and 14 majors.
“I still think he’ll break my record,” Nicklaus said last month. “Tiger’s talent, at 37 … it’s not that old. I won four after that. … But that said, he has still got to do it. He hasn’t won one in five years. He had better get with it if he’s going to.”