Before the 2009 Masters, Tiger Woods was returning from injury and he made a putt in near darkness to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Before the 2009 U.S. Open, Woods birdied the final two holes of the Memorial and won again. Before the 2009 British Open, Woods hosted the AT&T National at Congressional Country Club and birdied the 16th hole to break a tie with Hunter Mahan for another victory.
And before the 2009 PGA Championship, the final major of that season, Woods hit a sublime 8-iron a foot from the 16th pin, setting up the birdie that beat Padraig Harrington.
Each time, the momentum from a victory made Woods the favorite for his next tournament, a major. But Woods’s results that year in those majors: tied for sixth at the Masters, tied for sixth at the U.S. Open, a missed cut at the British Open and something he never had before experienced at the PGA Championship — holding a lead after 54 holes in a major, but failing to win the event, a runner-up to Y.E. Yang. It was his first season without one of the big four titles since 2004.
Coming off Woods’s win Sunday in this year’s AT&T National, the easy and tempting next move is to draw a dot from that victory through Woods’s start this week at the Greenbrier Classic to the British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes that begins July 15. He should be, as he was in 2009, the favorite.
“I had a good year that year,” Woods said Sunday night, thinking back to 2009. “I think I won six times that year. That would be nice if I could get that same total — with a couple majors in there.”
That, then, is the only remaining step — a major. Woods called his win at the AT&T National “fantastic,” and it sets him up for another run, this one to Sam Snead’s 82 victories on the PGA Tour. Woods’s win Sunday was his 74th, enough to pass Jack Nicklaus and move into second.
But in that one answer, Woods reiterates what everyone presumes. Six wins this year would be nice, and he’s halfway there — the only player with three PGA Tour victories this season. Yet “a couple majors in there” is what really matters, and there are just two remaining on this season’s calendar. As one man alongside the 18th green yelled before Woods putted out Sunday, “Win a major!”
But as an exercise in identifying the perils of making connections between one performance and the next, go back to 2009 again. In an interview prior to the AT&T National, Woods discussed the swing change that left him without a major championship in 2003 and 2004.
“I knew it was right for me, even if not everyone understood,” he said then. And with eight major championships by the time he turned 26, it’s safe to say not everyone understood.
That applies now, perhaps more than ever. Woods’s latest swing overhaul began late in 2010 with new coach Sean Foley, who replaced the architect of the previous changes, Hank Haney. Such a process requires an inordinate amount of patience. Woods has it.
“That’s not an issue,” Foley said last week. “He understands the big picture of what we’re trying to do, and he’s always understood it.”
Much of the public, though, doesn’t. So the data points Woods is supplying now are helpful indications that progress has been made. Just as in 2009, Woods won the tournaments hosted by Palmer and Nicklaus earlier, then backed it up by winning his own event. This swing change, too, came at a time when Woods wasn’t healthy. After the Masters in April 2011, Woods played just 14 rounds of regular tournament play the rest of the year — including missing the U.S. and British Opens — because of injuries to his left knee and Achilles’ tendon.
“I wasn’t able to practice, and I was hurt for a long time,” Woods said. “When you’re changing systems and have a totally different release pattern, it’s going to take some time. There are times when, yeah, I revert back [to his old swing]. But that’s happening less and less, and my ball-striking is getting better and better.”
There is evidence of that. Woods’s performance at Congressional — in which he went 8-under 276 to win by two over Bo Van Pelt — pushed his scoring average to 69.04, best on the PGA Tour. He is tied for fifth in total driving (a combination of distance and accuracy) and third in ball-striking (a combination of total driving and greens in regulation).
“Sean and I were working, and we see what’s coming, and we can see the consistency, and it’s just a matter of time,” Woods said. “Just stay the course.”
Staying that course has brought Woods here, to the point where he is again winning tournaments with more frequency than anyone else in the world. But the major question is still about major championships, which Woods has gone without for more than four years.
Can he win one? His form at Congressional suggests so. But go back to 2009 to find proof that winning tournaments doesn’t necessarily lead to winning majors.