Tiger Woods, for the first time since October 2010, will reclaim his perch atop the world golf rankings with a win at this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Attaining, losing, and regaining a foothold on No. 1 -- a position Woods owned for an astounding 623 weeks -- would be a remarkable achievement for anyone who, not all that long ago, had plummeted from the summit to the 58th spot. Woods, more than any other golfer on the planet, was well aware of what it required to climb his way back to the throne.
"Getting back to No. 1 and all that entails, it’s not that easy to get there in the first place," Woods told reporters Wednesday ahead of this week’s outing at Bay HIll. "I don’t think people realize how hard it is to become No. 1 in the world, but also to then sustain it for a number of years, is not exactly easy as well."
In the 29 months since Woods surveyed his kingdom from on high, four others have been pretenders to the throne. Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, and Martin Kaymer have all had a taste of life at the top, but Rory McIlroy has held on now for 39 weeks and appeared to move in for the long haul after a dominating 2012 season.
Then came the Northern Irishman’s equipment change, the swing issues, and a crisis of confidence that has the current champ on the ropes awaiting Woods’ knockout punch. For Tiger, his ability to come within one TKO of recovering his belt, taking another step toward Sam Snead’s all-time PGA Tour wins record of 82, and, along the way, becoming the odds-on favorite to win his 15th major next month in Augusta, the formula was not complicated: healthy legs, hard work on the swing he and Sean Foley have been honing, consistency, and oh yeah, healthy legs.
"I just needed to get healthy. Once I got healthy and I was able to practice properly, I could implement the swing changes that Sean wanted me to put in there, [I knew] I would get back there," Woods said. "But I needed to get healthy enough to where I could practice."
Now that he’s gadding about the fairways on good wheels, Woods can devote the hours he requires on the range and in the gym to ensure he can stay on the field long enough to rack up the Ws.
"I didn’t have the ability to practice, spend the hours I need to on my game," Woods said of his extended stings on the DL. "Once I was able to do that, slowly but surely I started to gain momentum and here we are."
Woods, who, with 76 wins heading into this week, could overtake Snead’s mark this season and hoped to start putting a dent in Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors with a victory at the Masters. He praised both legends for something he said he took for granted before injuries began taking their toll: the ability to play a full schedule.
"Sam did it for almost 30 years, well into his early 50s, so it speaks to being consistent and just being there," said Woods. "Over the years, [Nicklaus] was the most consistent at putting himself in position to win major championships and win tournaments."
With age has come the realization that family, kids, other business concerns, and younger and more talented opponents presented challenges to anyone’s ability to win on tour. The key, Woods noted, was performing at the highest levels for years on end.
"I’m sure somebody will come out here who’s bigger, stronger, faster, more athletic that will win a bunch of tournaments," Woods said, "but you’ve got to do it for a long period of time."
In the meantime, Woods will take his appreciation for what it takes to grab the brass ring again to Arnie’s backyard and, in three weeks, to Augusta National, but first ruminated about the difficulty of sitting on the sidelines nursing his bad knee and Achilles tendon.
"I think ’08 was probably the hardest year [to be out of the lineup] because it was the first time I’ve missed major championships," he said. "That stung quite a bit and to be on the couch and knowing that I’ve just won the [U.S.] Open and I can’t pay two major championships, that was frustrating."
Woods also waxed philosophical about being in the hunt several times at the Masters but failing to bag the big game.
"It’s been one of those things where I’ve been close so many times on that back nine on Sunday and I just haven’t won," he said. "I’ve been in the mix, I’ve been on the periphery, and I’ve played myself into the mix; I’ve been right there with just a few holes to go and it just hasn’t happened."
In April, Woods said, he hoped to write a new chapter in his quest for No. 19.
"Hopefully this year it will be a different story and I’ll put myself there and," he said, "hopefully have Bubba [2012 Masters champ Watson] put the [green] jacket on."
First things first though, and that would be the little business of defending his title at Bay Hill, notching back-to-back tour wins and chalking up this third of the season, and getting back to being the best in his chosen field.
And, Woods observed, it did not take Einstein to figure out what he had to do to overtake an inactive McIlroy, who will, once again, skip Arnold’s outing, much to the King’s dismay.
"To get back to No. 1 I’ve just got to win this week," Woods said. "It’s not too complicated."
As a warning to this week’s stout field, the current No. 2 seemed to like his chances.
"I feel like I’m headed in the right direction. I’m very pleased with where I’ve come from," Woods said. "Fifty-plus [in the rankings] to where I’m at is no small task."