By John Strege
Photo: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
When choosing a Tiger Woods vintage, 2000, as they might say in Johnny Miller's Napa Valley neighborhood, was a very good year, incomparable, even. But what about vintage Tiger Woods?
Miller uncorked the possibility that that is where Tiger's game is headed. "He could be moving back into that 2000 year form for the first time," Miller said Saturday on the NBC telecast of the Players Championship.
On Sunday, Woods lent credence to the notion, by winning for the fourth time this year and third time in his last four starts. By way of comparison, Woods had three victories through mid-May of 2000, though he would go on to win six more times that year, including the remaining three major championships. It's a steep curve.
Still, it's an interesting observation, one that Miller based on the versatility that has returned to Woods' game. "I like what Tiger's doing," he said. "He's standing a little closer to it, a little more up the line and down the line, not swinging over to the left. Now he can hit the cut when he wants, he's got a straight ball on the normal shot, and he can play the draw."
The draw, the final piece for a shotmaker who prefers shaping the ball, was there on command late on Sunday afternoon. Clinging to a one-stroke lead, his tee shot on the 18th hole followed the route of the fairway, right to left. Then with the pin tucked in the front left corner of the green, he took a 9-iron and hit another draw to 18 feet above the hole. Game, set and unmatched.
"That's what he has over the field right now," Miller said. "He can hit the cut or the draw. All systems are go right now."
Maybe, but the caution flag remains out. The design of the TPC Sawgrass diminishes the need for the driver, which remains Woods' arch-enemy. He was ranked 154th in driving accuracy entering the Players Championship, and even on courses that call for the club more often, he tends to resist it.
Then there was that tee shot at the 14th hole while holding a two-stroke lead. It was straight off a muny, a pop-up hook that splashed down in the middle of a hazard. "I'm sorry, but I don't think Tiger 2000 hits that tee shot," fellow PGA Tour player Bob Estes wrote on Twitter.
Woods likely would concur. "On the 14th tee, that was the worst shot I could possibly hit," he said. Misfiring to that extent, while guarding a final-round lead, has never been part of his playbook.
It likely was an aberration. He still won by two and to do so in the Players might be disconcerting to the competition than his four victories. The Players has never been a gimme for Woods, the way other tour courses have been (eight professional victories at Torrey Pines, eight at Bay Hill). He had won it only once before, a dozen years ago.
Even more disconcerting might have been his succinct post-tournament assessment of his game.
"I'm getting better," he said simply.