Ron Sirak

Not So Fast

Tiger Woods won for a second time in 2012, but how he responds will be a better indication of the status of his golf game

June 5, 2012

The roar when Tiger Woods chipped in for birdie on No. 16 Sunday at the Memorial -- a chip that was just about impossible to get up-and-down, let alone hole -- had the raucous decibel level of the old days. For four scintillating holes late on the back nine at Muirfield Village, it was the year 2000 again. But those quick to slap the "He's back" label on Woods' 73rd PGA Tour victory need to season the triumph with several significant grains of salt.

First off, we've been down this path before. When Woods won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, it seemed as if he had turned a significant corner in his comeback from injury, swing change and scandal. Then in his next three events -- the Masters, Wells Fargo Championship and the Players -- he finished T-40 twice and missed the cut. How will the game we saw at the Memorial hold up next week in the U.S. Open? That's one of the most compelling questions in all of sports right now.

The biggest step forward for Woods at Muirfield Village was that he birdied three of the last four holes to win, including that remarkable chip-in and one on the final hole that sealed the deal. At Bay Hill, after Graeme McDowell missed short putts on Nos. 9 and 10, Tiger played the rest of the way without being tested by anyone. Sunday, his game held up under pressure.

The other caveat for the only two post-scandal PGA Tour victories Woods has had is that they came on golf courses he can play in his sleep. The triumph at Bay Hill was his seventh in the Palmer event and he picked up his fifth Memorial, where Jack Nicklaus rules the roost. So a dozen of his 73 tour wins have come in those two events -- about 17 percent of the total.

When he got to the Masters, there was every reason to think Tiger would bring the game we saw at Bay Hill with him. After all, Woods has won at Augusta National four times. Instead, we got his worst finish in the event as a professional.

Related: Watch video of Tiger's incredible chip-in

The next major, which is the next tournament for Woods, will be played on a course on which he does not have such a dominating record. The last time Woods played Olympic Club under competitive conditions was in 1998, the last time it hosted the U.S. Open, where he finished T-18, 10 strokes behind winner Lee Janzen. It's not like he's going to Torrey Pines or Pebble Beach.

There is also this word of caution to throw out when screaming, "He's back" about Tiger: How do we define "back"? It's unlikely we will ever see the vintage 2000 Woods again, just like we will not see the vintage 2000 Alex Rodriguez again. Athletes age and skills diminish. Winning nine times with three majors in a season is an unrealistic expectation from Woods at this stage of his career.

But a version of Tiger Lite -- say three or four victories and a major -- is an extremely realistic expectation. And that kind of season would most likely make him Player of the Year and return him to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking. A slightly reduced Tiger Woods is still better than just about anyone else out there.

Here are the real positives Tiger fans can take away from the Memorial: First, his misses with the driver are much better than they were. For a long time, you just held your breath waiting for him to launch one off the planet, which inevitably occurred. Now when he misses a fairway it is not by that much.

Secondly, that chip-in on No. 16 is also reason for optimism because it is exactly the kind of wondrous short game shot that has been mysteriously missing. What was once the best up-and-down game this side of Seve Ballesteros has been spotty, at best, since about the time of the blown lead against Y.E. Yang in the 2009 PGA Championship.

And third is simply the fact that he closed out the final round with three birdies in four holes, including on No. 18. Strangely, one of the things Woods has struggled with in his road back has been closing out events. Over the last six months, he's had chances to win in Australia, Abu Dhabi and at Pebble Beach and was unable to get the job done.

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