ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- What’s the measure of a great year for Tiger Woods?
His standards –- and of course, his game –- have always set him apart from fellow players. The bar was set high and simple: major championships. The Jack Nicklaus poster in his bedroom as a boy. The number 18, now looming larger than ever. The lone, singular focus was always winning majors.
At least it used to be.
When asked if it could be a good year even if he leaves Oak Hill empty-handed, Tiger replied, “Yeah, I think so.”
Now we’ve seen the softer side of Tiger Woods –- his embrace with his son, Charlie, after winning last week’s WGC-Bridgestone is unforgettable –- are we seeing Tiger lowering the bar for himself and weakening his standards?
Let’s allow Tiger to answer as only he can.
But without a major, can it still be a great year?
Talking about Shaun Micheel, who won his only major here at Oak Hill at the 2003 PGA Championships, Woods affirmed the importance of majors in golf, but he said that his five wins this year –- including the Players Championship –- make for a great year despite his lack of success at the majors.
“I think winning one major championship automatically means you had a great year,” Woods said. “Even if you miss the cut in every tournament you play in; you win one, you're part of history. This year, for me, I think it's been a great year so far for me, winning five times, and you look at the quality of tournaments I've won, a Players and two World Golf Championships in there, that's pretty good.”
Anytime Tiger is asked about his 0-for-17 mark at majors since the 2008 U.S. Open, he’s quick to point out he’s been in contention on Sunday more often than not. And he’s correct. He’s finished in the top 10 in nine of the last 17 majors and this year he finished T4 at the Masters and T6 at the British Open. (Struggling with an elbow injury, he finished T32 at the U.S. Open in June.)
“Frustrating part is I've been there and didn't win two of the tournaments that I was right there in ,” Woods said. “I put myself there with a chance on Sunday and didn't get it done. Same thing at the Open”
So is No. 15 the hardest hurdle to clear?
“It kind of seems that way,” Woods said. “It's been probably the longest spell that I've had since I hadn't won a major championship. I've had, certainly, my share of chances to win. I've had my opportunities there on the back nine on those, probably half of those Sundays for the last five years where I've had a chance, and just haven't won it. But the key is to keep giving myself chances, and eventually I'll start getting them.”
After the British Open, Tiger’s former caddie Steve Williams said Woods’ game was in good shape. The only thing missing, according to Williams? His aggressiveness. But Woods said the conditions of the course dictated his decision-making at Muirfield.
“There the penalty for being overly aggressive and hitting the ball in the wrong spots was very severe,” Woods said. “I was right there with a chance going into Sunday. I was right there. Going to 17 when I spun that 3 wood in there, that changed the whole momentum of the tournament, but I was still right there. I just think that certain golf courses allow you to be more aggressive than others. Last week I was a little more aggressive because the conditions were softer. At Muirfield, when you're hitting 5 irons that are going 285, it's kind of hard to be superly aggressive. It was just a different kind of golf course.”
Woods said that he hit the ball as well at Muirfield as he did last week at the WCG-Bridgestone, which he won by seven strokes. The difference, he said, was his putting. “Obviously I feel pretty good about winning by seven and coming here. I feel like my game's pretty good,” Woods said. “As I was saying to a lot of you guys last week, that's how I played at the British Open. Only difference is I made more putts last week. I hit it just as good at Muirfield, and didn't make any putts the last three days. At Firestone, I putted well, but I hit the ball just the same.” As he practiced on the driving range Tuesday afternoon at Oak Hill – where he said his driver would only come out of the bag 2-5 times per round -- smiles were abundant. Leaning against his signature headcover, Tiger chatted with Lee Westwood and Joe LaCava as he wiped away the sweat he had worked up after an intense range session.
When Woods walked across the makeshift bridge from the driving range to the putting green, he was above the masses gathered to watch him practice in hopes of an autograph, above the PGA Championship logo printed across the bridge and above his fellow competitors in the practice area.
His fans at arm’s length, higher than the game itself and walking over his opponents?
This might be the old Tiger after all, no matter the standards.