Not So Fast

By Ron Sirak Photos by Getty Images
June 03, 2012

Tiger Woods has two wins in 2012, but is still looking for consistent results.

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.

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.

The stats from the Memorial are mostly good for Woods. He was T-16 in driving distance, and that's using a lot of 3-woods off the tee, and T-14 in driving accuracy. He also led the field in greens in regulation, a category he used to dominate but in which he was only No. 20 on tour coming into Muirfield Village.

The club that really remains the most problematic for Woods is the putter. He was a less-than-mediocre No. 41 in the crucial strokes gained-putting stat, T-42 in total putts and T-25 in putts per GIR. On Saturday, when he shot 73, Tiger had 32 putts.

To contend at the Olympic Club, Woods is going to have to putt better than that. Birdies are usually in short supply at the U.S. Open and the greens putt at a speed that makes chipping close to the hole after missing a green extremely difficult. The winner of the Open is usually the guy who makes the most six-foot par putts.

Pretty much since he got Yanged in the '09 PGA, the sense of inevitability that was there for Woods on those six-footers has been replaced by a more tentative stroke, like the one he had on the downhill, seven-foot birdie putt on No. 11 Sunday that he left short.

This much is clear: When Woods is back in the mix -- even if it is Tiger Lite -- it makes a difference. The roar when he chipped in was deafening. The Sunday TV rating was up 138 percent

over last year and was the highest for the Memorial in eight years.

This much is also clear: Woods did enough at the Memorial to warrant being considered among the favorites in the U.S. Open, especially since the defending champ -- Rory McIlroy -- has now missed three cuts in a row.

But we also felt going into the Masters that Tiger was back and he turned out to be just another guy who happened to have the name Woods. The real winner Sunday at Memorial just might be ESPN, which has the first two rounds of the U.S. Open, and NBC on the weekend.

If nothing else, folks will be tuning in to see whether it's T-40 Woods or Tiger the champion who shows up. Woods' chase of Nicklaus' record of 18 professional majors has been stuck on 14 since Tiger won the 2008 U.S. Open. Even Tiger Lite would be good enough to get another. It will be fun to watch.