After watching Tiger Woods hobble and scramble his away around the PGA Tour this summer, the thought occurred that maybe the Masters win in April did not mark the resumption of his chase for the majors record but was rather the final capstone in arguably the greatest golf career of all time.
Both options would have been fine but Tiger was hardly competitive in the final three majors of the year. Following four years of crippling injury and some personal embarrassment, he won the damn Masters and it would have been hard to blame him for deciding to party a bit, throttle down, and walk off with it. The Tiger that won that fifth green jacket was not seen again this summer. Watching those post-Masters starts had a tinge of drudgery from those injured years.
This was apparently nothing the seasons turning and a little miracle arthroscopic knee surgery could not fix. Tiger showed up at the Zozo Championship, the first ever PGA Tour event in Japan, and blitzed a loaded field with what may be his most impressive game since this improbable and likely last comeback started in 2018. The Masters win was much more significant, but this was a vintage type of dominance from Thursday through the 72nd hole of a delayed finish on Monday morning in Japan.
The championship started with his first shot going into the water and bogeys on his first three holes. That opening round ended with 9 birdies and his lowest start to a season in his career. He backed up that 64 with another 64 in the second round and the rest felt like a formality in the old way when Tiger would race out to a multi-shot cushion and just watch the rest of the field slowly bleed out over the weekend.
Tiger’s 64-64-66-67 week at the Zozo felt larger than a mid-October win on the other side of the world. He got his knee scoped, took a couple months off, and immediately dominated in his first start of the new season. It looked nearly flawless, too. There were no smoke-and-mirrors or stressful scrambles just to keep rounds on track. The iron play is always what’s differentiated Tiger from his peers. The violence and power off the tee have been seducing throughout his career, and those miracle chip shots or clinching putts get the highlights, but the iron play is what has piled up all the wins in that bleed-them-out fashion. That’s the part of his game that came back in 2018, when he finished at the top of the Tour’s strokes gained approach statistic. In a great interview with Golf Digest this week, PGA Tour player Joel Dahmen, far from a superstar but full of insight, discussed the control it takes to really separate yourself at the very top of the game.
What’s the difference between you and a golfer who’s never going to graduate from the Korn Ferry Tour?
It’s hard to describe, but that guy is never going to have total control of his golf ball. You can see it in his ball flight and around the greens. When he’s hot, he shoots 63 and looks great, but he can’t do it for four days, much less a season. Scratch golfers are really good, but they don’t always know which way the ball is going to curve. I sometimes forget how good I am and can be, then I go play with my caddie, Geno Bonnalie, who qualified for the U.S. Mid-Am in 2017. At an easy course with light rough where he can wedge it on from anywhere, I’ll give him one shot a side. At 7,500 yards with trouble everywhere, I might give him seven a side. Not to sound like a jerk, but people don’t understand the control required to play PGA Tour setups.
No one has ever controlled a golf ball better than Tiger Woods. After a summer that felt n/a from a competitive standpoint, that control was back this week. The best part is it all looked easy and natural, and as a sign of things to come.
What it means now
Tiger has win No. 82, tying Sam Snead’s all-time PGA Tour wins record. That number is the record in the same way that you get a partner in your weekend game by throwing a tee in the air to randomly pair up sides. Calculating what is an official PGA Tour win is hard to do just for Tiger’s career alone, and nearly impossible across different generations. Here’s a sampling of why:
Reminder as Tiger Woods guns for Sam Snead's 82-win mark, Snead's victories include:— Joel Beall (@JoelMBeall) October 26, 2019
- 6 against fields of 15 or fewer...including a 4-player field
- 3 36-hole events, 1 18-holer
- '50 Crosby Pro-Am. Instead of a playoff, four players tied were given W.
Snead’s total changed multiple times before the Tour decided to just call it 82. Tiger is now officially at 82 wins at the age of 43. It’s hard to compare eras or even establish records with real comparable value in many sports.
Over the past year, the number 82 was probably marketed into much more than the foundation underneath it justifies. The fact is Tiger has won 82 times, at the least, on the PGA Tour. Whether the record is inconsequential or unknowable, as Jack Nicklaus alluded to earlier this year, is separate from the fact that winning 82 times on the PGA Tour is an obscene amount and it’s likely never going to be accomplished again. Set aside whatever the record is or should be and appreciate the number for what it is.
What this win also means now is that Tiger is a lock for his own Presidents Cup team. He will, and should, make himself one of his captain’s picks next week. It’s a crowded field for four spots but the reigning Masters champ and the game we just watched absolutely deserve it, if he didn’t already. Tiger will be a playing captain.
What it means later
Tiger is back, again. If he’s healthy, he will win again this season. Gary Woodland, the reigning U.S. Open champ who played alongside Woods this weekend, said Tiger’s “distance control was a joke” and he’d “never seen anything like it.” These are quotes we heard in 2000 and 2005 and, after a long hiatus, we’re now hearing again at the end of another decade. It’s the iron play and control we talked about above and it’s been there since the start of 2018. That game is too good to not win again.
This would be the 8th time Tiger has opened a PGA Tour season with a win. In 5 of the previous 7 instances, he won at least one major later that season.— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGolf) October 27, 2019
Tiger said he put off the knee surgery he had this fall throughout last year and perhaps that explains some of those lethargic late season performances. Those strugglebus images from the summer were wiped out with this show of force. If he’s healthy, this won’t be his only win of the season and that should have everyone smiling as they sip their Sunday night Monster thinking of what awaits in 2020.