Tiger Woods, wearing a red shirt and black pants, flexed his right arm and unleashed an uppercut as the ball tumbled into the hole on the 16th green. He let out a wide-mouthed roar that was matched by the crowd.
The scene at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Ohio on June 3 was straight out of Woods’s pre-scandal world, when he was the unchallenged best. Television ratings more than doubled for the Memorial Tournament as he tied Jack Nicklaus with 73 professional victories, his second win of the season following a title at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill event in March in Orlando, Florida.
While those victories are signs that the game’s former No. 1 player is closer to reestablishing his winning ways, the 36- year-old Woods and many of his peers say the questions won’t end until he uses his arms to again hoist a major trophy, not just pump his fists. His latest chance to end a four-year Grand Slam drought, the longest of his career, starts today as the U.S. Open begins at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.
“It’s not just that he wins anymore,” Curtis Strange, 57, a two-time Open winner, said on a media conference call June 7. “But I think down deep inside me, to say he’s back to a level of competing every week? Yeah, I think he would have to win a major first.”
Woods can move within three of Nicklaus’s record 18 major titles this week. He is listed as a 7-1 favorite by the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino’s Super Book. Rory McIlroy, the defending U.S. Open champion, and five-time runner-up Phil Mickelson are second at 15-1. The tournament had an $8 million purse in 2011, with this year’s prize disclosed tomorrow.
Woods reached 73 wins 10 years sooner than it took Nicklaus, both trailing Sam Snead’s record of 82. The feat leaves some competitors searching for ways to describe it.
“They’re just stupid numbers,” 1992 Masters Tournament winner Fred Couples said in a June 6 interview in Birmingham, Alabama. “It makes no sense.”
Yet, Woods has been stuck at 14 majors since he defeated Rocco Mediate in a 19-hole playoff in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego in 2008. Woods is skeptical that a win this week will be enough to end the comeback talk.
“Even if I do win, it will still be, ‘You’re not to 18 yet,’ or, ‘When will you get to 19?’” Woods said in a press conference two days ago. “It’s always something. I’ve dealt with that my entire career. It hasn’t changed.”
John Cook, a longtime friend of Woods who now plays on the senior tour, said the three-time U.S. Open champion is as close to returning to his old form as he has seen.
“He’s ready, he’s prepared and he’s thinking clearly,” Cook, 54, said in Birmingham last week. “It reminds me of the old Tiger Woods.”
Woods’s life began to unravel publicly on a November night in 2009, when he smashed his SUV into a fire hydrant outside his Florida home. The aftermath revealed extramarital affairs that led to his divorce and loss of sponsors, including AT&T Inc. and Accenture Plc.
He underwent addiction therapy and apologized for his behavior. As the marquee player in a $76 billion golf industry, as measured by the National Golf Foundation, Woods is still listed as the highest-earning athlete by Sports Illustrated with $60 million in annual endorsement income. He signed sponsorship deals in October with the luxury watchmaker Rolex Group and sports nutrition company Fuse Science Inc.
As he returned to golf while dealing with his personal problems, Woods battled leg injuries and went more than two years without a full-fledged tournament victory, a streak that ended at Bay Hill. His ability to win again was often pointed to as the only way to make the public forget about his transgressions.
“Hell, yeah, he made a huge mistake,” said Couples, 52, whose former caddie, Joe LaCava, now carries Woods’s bag. “He’d be an idiot if he sat there and thought that he didn’t do something wrong. But in my opinion, that’s all in the past and now he’s a golfer making his way back to being the best player.”
The golf public has embraced Woods again, at least according to television ratings. His win two weeks ago drew a 3.8 overnight rating on CBS, up from 1.6 a year earlier when Steve Stricker won the rain-plagued event, according to the network. The ratings were up 19 percent from 2010.
Not all of Woods’s peers are ready to forgive him.
“Everybody can make up their own opinion,” three-time U.S. Open winner Hale Irwin, 67, said in Birmingham, where the senior tour played last week. “I don’t really care. I think he’s got a long way to go to make up for some of the hurt that he has put on the golf world over the last couple of years.”
The sport, along with the hysteria that surrounded Woods’s record-setting play, is unlikely to return to the way it was before his accident, Couples said. Woods is trying his best to rekindle some of that old magic.
At the Memorial, an event hosted by Nicklaus, Woods -- in his traditional Sunday red and black -- added a defining shot to his personal highlight collection.
Faced with a downhill lie from behind a green that was sloping away from him toward water, Woods hit a high-lofted shot out of the rough to a two-foot landing area on the 16th green. The ball plunked on the putting surface, then rolled down the slope and into the hole, producing pre-scandal-style euphoria.
The shot was seen as another step in the quest to regain the top spot in the game by Woods, now fourth in the Official World Golf Ranking after falling out of the top 50 in October. The same optimism was evident two weeks before the season’s first major, April’s Masters Tournament, when Woods captured Bay Hill. Woods then left Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia with a 40th place finish, the worst of his professional career.
Things got worse. He missed the 36-hole cut at Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club, a course many players deem to be major championship worthy, and finished 40th at the Players championship. Woods went from the win column to the three worst consecutive results of his career.
“Something happened in those two weeks before Augusta and he didn’t look the same,” Cook said. “I venture to guess that’s not going to happen to him this week.”
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