With strong and accurate game, Tiger Woods has real shot at his lifelong goal

March 26, 2012

There is a new roadmap to 19.

Tiger Woods's victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational is notable for a bunch of reasons, but it may ultimately be remembered as the tournament at which golf's greatest scrambler reinvented himself as a merciless ballstriker. This has profound ramifications for Woods's quest to win five more major championships and accomplish his lifelong goal of breaking Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 career majors.

During the first act of Tiger's career he had periods of fabulous ballstriking, but it was his short game that was the difference-maker. For a dozen years he putted as well or better than anyone ever has, and his Houdini-esque escapes were legion. Through sheer force of will Woods routinely turned 74s into 69s. But that's a young man's game. In the last 30 years only Seve Ballesteros could claim a short-game on par with Woods's. The dashing Spaniard won five majors by age 31 but never another as his swing flaws became too much to overcome. You can only fly so high on borrowed wings.

Woods, 36, has always been a tinkerer — after all, he's won the Masters with three different swings — but the latest overhaul to his action is likely the last. He has entrusted Sean Foley to help him eliminate the big miss. In his new book about his ex-pupil, Hank Haney writes that when they started working together circa 2004, Woods had the beginnings of the driver yips. Everything Woods did from then on was basically defensive, and the power advantage he enjoyed in his youth was largely lost.

Now, 18 months after joining forces with Foley, and with his body mostly intact, Tiger is swinging with a renewed confidence and aggression. He is first in the PGA Tour's total driving stat, and at Bay Hill he bludgeoned a brutal course setup into submission, leading the field in greens in regulation. On Sunday he took control of the tournament on the front nine with a brilliant stretch of four birdies in six holes, despite high winds, brick-hard greens and brutal pin placements. The key blow was a majestic 267-yard 3-iron on the dangerous par-5 sixth hole, which Foley called "the sexiest long iron I've ever seen Tiger hit." The 182-yard 8-iron to four feet on the eighth hole wasn't bad, either. Asked to pick his best shot of the day, Woods was stumped.

"Well, I hit a lot of good ones today," he said. "I can't say one shot stood out, because I hit I thought a boatload of good ones. I had really good control of my ball all day. I was shaping it both ways, changing my traj. Felt so comfortable. No, I can't pick out one shot, sorry."

Woods's ability to shape shots is what makes him so dangerous in the majors, where every weakness is exposed and those with a limited repertoire are overwhelmed by the demands of the setups, much like every other player was at Bay Hill.

Woods made some crucial putts during the final round, but the fact remains that his putting has been mediocre over the last two years, and it's doubtful he'll ever wield the wand as fearlessly as he did as a young, carefree bachelor. But if he controls the ball like he did at Bay Hill, it won't matter. Ben Hogan had one major championship victory when he turned 36 — Tiger's age — and then he took eight more, and he was never more than an average putter. Hitting it long, high and straight is the way to win majors, just as it always has been.

The defining performance of the young Tiger was when he decimated Augusta National in 1997. Despite the retrofitting in subsequent years, the home of the Masters remains a bomber's paradise. Woods will go there this year with a totally different mindset.

"I went through a number of years where I lost a lot of distance," he said on Sunday, following his 72nd career PGA Tour victory. "I've gained all that back, and I'm one of the longer hitters out here on Tour again, which is nice."

Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and the rest should consider themselves forewarned. Woods is definitely back, but he is not the same player he was before. He may be even more potent.