• Out of Bounds

Win a major, Tiger, and then we'll agree you're 'back'

ESPN staff
July 3, 2012
Tiger Woods was on song at Congressional © Getty Images
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Have we not been through this all before?

Tiger Woods isn't 'back' yet, not even after three PGA Tour wins already in 2012. Tiger Woods will only truly be 'back' when he wins an event he really, truly cares about - a major.

Regular events, like last week's AT&T National, have long since given up any real meaning to the 14-time major champion. Where other players - including his adversary over the back nine at Congressional, Bo Van Pelt - get tight and nervous at the prospect of winning a big event, Woods rests easy in the knowledge he has done it many, many times before.

That's why it was Van Pelt (one career full PGA Tour win) who threw away the tournament (finishing with three successive bogeys), rather than Woods who had to go out and win it. Tiger doesn't feel the tension of regular events any more partially because they carry little significance to him - it's about the milestones they bring.

Like, on Sunday, how his 74th PGA Tour victory puts him clear of Jack Nicklaus in second on the all-time list.

"It feels great to get to 74 wins and obviously pass Jack," Woods said during his post-win press conference. "I did it at 36 years old, and it's something I'm very proud of."

It all doesn't mean he's 'back', though. The old Tiger Woods, after all, picked up major championships with impunity - so that is the yardstick by which his return, as hard as an act as that is to live up to, must be measured.

This is the third time this year Woods has won in the weeks leading up to a major championship yet, with the Open around the corner, on the last two occasions he failed to sustain a challenge at either the Masters or the US Open (where, admittedly, he was well placed after 36 holes) despite being widely tipped for triumph.

Why can Woods not sustain his general form in majors? The root cause probably lies in his mind. Woods has revamped his swing considerably with new coach Sean Foley, changes that have taken a long time to bed in. While he can stick to the new movements under the spotlight of a regular event (where, as outlined above, he rarely feels real pressure and tension), it is different under the glare of a major event.

Because he wants to win them, badly. Those milestones he is so obsessed with? The biggest - 18 major championships - remains some way from being achieved.

That's why his new swing has yet to stick at the majors like it obviously has elsewhere. You revert to what you know best - even if those habits bring nothing but trouble - when in pursuit of what you want most of all.

"There are times when, yeah, I revert back," Woods acknowledged. "But that's happening less and less, and my ball striking is getting better and better."

Can Woods maintain his new swing, the changed rhythm and tempo, at Royal Lytham & St Annes in two weeks? It's not impossible. When on song there is no-one who can plot their way around a links course quite like Tiger Woods - but it's one thing identifying where the ball needs to go, it's quite another thing putting it there.

"There are times when, yeah, I revert back. But that's happening less and less"
- Tiger Woods

With Woods making his return to British shores for a competitive golf appearance for the first time since the 2010 Ryder Cup, he's got to get back up to speed on what is required when you play around a links.

"I'm going to play next week [at the Greenbrier], and then I'm going to have to start practising some different shots and getting used to hitting the ball a little bit lower, a little bit more flighted," he revealed. "It's a totally different game playing links golf. But I still have to have the ability to get the ball up in the air.

"That's something that we're going to work on. I've got a week basically two weeks, but one week of prep prior to the Open, and we'll get after it."

Woods knows he still isn't 'back'. The old Woods used to win majors regularly, and the new Woods wants to do that more than anything else. Winning handfuls of regular tour events a season would be a marvellous achievement for any other golfer - see Luke Donald, 2011 - but Woods is not used to being 'any other golfer'.

He judges himself by major titles won, so we shall hold him to the same standard. He's a dominant winner once again, but we won't know if he's back until he claims a trophy he truly, deeply cares about.

A major.

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