We'll skip over the "Is Tiger Woods back?" question because, frankly, it's been completely worn out. Tiger Woods can still be the Tiger Woods we've watched dominate golf for years and years, even if he isn't the same man he was in his younger days. He did just that this past week at the WGC-Cadillac Championship, but looking beyond the results there were some encouraging signs as The Masters draws closer.
Put aside Tiger's win and you'll see some good things -- parts of his game that will come in handy as he builds towards the year's first major. Wins in PGA Tournaments -- and at WGC events -- are nice, but with Tiger it's still all about the majors. Everything he does builds towards those four big events each year, with the goal being peak performance for The Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship each season.
We've seen Tiger win leading up to majors over the past few years, only to watch him struggle in events he cares about most. This time, however, something feels a bit different. We won't know for sure until he tees it up at Augusta, but it appears Tiger's game is rounding into form, and that he's happy with where he's at.
First and foremost, his swing is just about where he wants it now. Tiger has spent a significant amount of time with Sean Foley, retooling his swing to be less taxing on his legs -- a product of the multiple knee surgeries he's endured -- while allowing him to control his ball flight. Tiger played a high cut almost exclusively at Doral, showing a new confidence in his swing.
It's no secret that the left-going-left miss gets into Tiger's head. His goal has been to play a cut, and play it consistently -- eliminating the left miss. But he's gone a step further, essentially taking the left side of the golf course out of play. At Doral, he was under control, playing a cut all weekend. His misses were right, which is exactly where he wants to bail out.
In taking the left side out of play, Tiger gives himself a mental edge. He can swing freely without having to worry about the left miss, knowing his ball will head right if he does miss and understanding where his ball is going to go. This gives him confidence, something that's been lacking in his long game for, well ... for a very long time. The right miss is fine, and taking the left side out of play is a sign that Tiger's swing is just about where he wants it to be. The changes are working, and Tiger admitted he's just tweaking small things while shifting out of complete overhaul mode.
While the long game has been at the forefront of Tiger's mind, his short game has noticeably suffered in the past few years. He's spent so much time tweaking his full swing that his wedges and short game have been on the back burner. It's showed: Tiger struggled with a wedge in his hand, leaving himself difficult putts or missing the green entirely. For the world's best, the inability to stuff a wedge is a recipe for disaster. It's difficult to card low scores when you're spending all your time scrambling.
This year, though, Tiger's wedges have come around. Inside 125 yards, Tiger is finally looking like the Tiger of old. He's firing at flags, holing out from the fairway, hitting sticks, or leaving himself short putts. Tiger is at his best -- like any professional golfer -- when his wedges are dialed in. And right now, they are dialed in.
Last year, it felt as though Tiger was better off hitting a long iron into greens than he was a pitching, sand or lob wedge. Too many times I watched him fly a green, leave a wedge short, or end up in a bunker. His distance control was severely lacking, and he suffered as a result.
At Doral, Tiger was solid with a wedge in his hand, leading to a barrage of birdies. Heading into The Masters, Tiger's distance control needs to be on. It's crucial at Augusta to be able to control spin and distances to score on the unforgiving greens where ball placement is paramount.
Finally, Tiger's putting stroke has come around. Much will be made of the tip Steve Stricker gave him before the WGC-Cadillac Championship, but this was more a tweak that got him over the hump than a magic cure. He was close, and everything came together at Doral.
How well was Tiger putting?
Woods needed 100 putts in 72 holes this week. Wow.— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) March 10, 2013
That's about 1.38 putts per hole, and it tells us a few things. First, Tiger was hitting putts from just about everywhere. Watching him on the greens, it was clear Tiger was putting a good roll on the ball. His reads, speed and lines were solid, and putts were falling. Those that weren't still were leaving him tucked in tight.
His putting average also tells us how well his short game was. One doesn't card 27 birdies over four rounds -- and use only 100 putts in a tournament -- without stuffing the ball in tight with approaches.
Everything is coming together for Tiger, which is a good sign as The Masters approaches. His shot shape and long game are coming around, and his wedge- and short-game are finally coming back. These are all pieces in the puzzle -- pieces that come together when one sees his putting number.
Consistency, however, is key, and Tiger will need to show he can perform like he did at Doral on a consistent basis, and that he can do it over four all-important days at The Masters. Doral was another starting point -- a strong one, and one with very positive signs beyond the results. Tiger put on a show at the WGC-Cadillac Championship, and the thought of a repeat performance at The Masters against a stacked field has to have golf fans salivating.