With two consecutive wins before 2009's final major, Tiger Woods is making his comeback season special

With two consecutive wins before 2009’s final major, Tiger Woods is making his comeback season special

Woods has won 16 of the first 32 World Golf Championships, good for almost $19 million.
Fred Vuich/SI

The fan, perched on a landing halfway up the outdoor staircase that led to the clubhouse at Firestone Country Club, shouted out as Tiger Woods, the seven-time winner of the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, was being escorted to the awards ceremony on Sunday. “Hey, Tiger! Nice weekend!” yelled the man, who held a beer in one hand and a cigar in the other. Woods looked over and, without breaking stride, wordlessly responded with a small wave.

Some things change. Woods usually tunes out such salutations, having learned to live with his own kind of tunnel vision, a necessary skill when you’re arguably the most famous athlete in the world. But Tiger is in a good place this summer. Being the father of two will do that, and so will winning, which he has done five times so far in 2009.

And some things don’t change. Because of his disappointing play in the first three majors this year — he tied for sixth in the Masters and the U.S. Open, and missed the cut at the British Open — the debate rages over whether Woods is fully recovered from surgery on his left knee, and whether his coach, Hank Haney, has helped or hurt Woods’s game, particularly his in-and-out play off the tee.

Those who say Woods is driving the ball poorly must’ve been mystified last weekend when, on some of the narrowest fairways on the PGA Tour, he shot a pair of five-under 65s, hitting 64% and 57% of the fairways, respectively. Says Hunter Mahan, who tied for fourth, “He would do well here playing lefthanded.”

Those who ask whether Woods is “back” might be interested to learn that, in fact, he is closing in on one of his best seasons. The Bridgestone victory was his second in a row and fourth in his last six starts. If he should win his 15th major at this week’s PGA Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., plus a couple of FedEx Cup playoff events to end the season, he could finish this comeback year with eight, maybe nine wins. In his best year, 2000, Woods won nine times.

The Bridgestone win, by four strokes over Robert Allenby and Padraig Harrington, with a 12-under 268, bodes well for Woods this week. First, Firestone is a major-worthy course that is similar to Hazeltine — same grasses and trees, and the greens are relatively the same size and speed. Second, Woods has won the PGA four times, but never in a year in which he hadn’t also won at Firestone. And finally, Tiger clearly has his groove back. Everyone could see that during the third round, when he jumped from 13th place to the final pairing on Sunday with Harrington. For perhaps the first time this season Woods was in complete control of his game. He picked his lines, hit his spots and needed only 23 putts.

Tiger was still on his game on Sunday, reeling off an eagle and three birdies on the front side to erase Harrington’s three-shot lead and go in front by two. Then a couple of errant drives led to a pair of bogeys, and the game was on. The tournament was decided at the 16th hole, a downhill par-5 of 667 yards with a small green guarded by a pond. Woods drove into the left rough and chipped out. Harrington drove into the right rough but pulled his second across the fairway and into the left rough on an upslope. From 178 yards out, Woods then landed a sweet eight-iron shot four feet past the cup and watched it spin back to within inches for a kick-in birdie. “That was a phenomenal shot,” Harrington said. “I struggled to hit [and hold] that green with a lob wedge, so it was pretty impressive.”

In fact, Harrington missed the green long and right with his third shot on Sunday, his ball coming to rest in a patch of thick rough. Facing a downhill pitch with little green to work with and water just beyond, but knowing that Woods had a guaranteed birdie, Harrington tried a risky flop shot, caught his ball heavy and knocked it into the drink. He wound up with an embarrassing triple-bogey 8.

Later, Woods blamed a rules official for upsetting Harrington on the 16th tee. The official, John Paramor, chief referee for the European tour, told the players that they were “on the clock” because they had lagged behind the pace of play. Woods said he thought it caused Harrington to rush his crucial third and fourth shots. (Harrington blamed himself for not executing them.) Woods, when asked if he had won because he hit a great eight-iron at 16 or because Harrington was rattled after being put on the clock, simply said, “Both.”

The victory was Tiger’s 70th on the PGA Tour, leaving him three behind Jack Nicklaus for second place on the alltime list. (Sam Snead holds the Tour record with 82 wins.) If you mix in Woods’s 11 international victories, his 13 unofficial titles (such as his seven wins at the PGA Grand Slam of Golf) and his six U.S. Golf Association championships (three U.S. Amateurs and U.S. Juniors), the Bridgestone victory was Woods’s 100th.

After Sunday’s fireworks, Harrington shook hands with Woods on the 18th green and said, “We’ll do battle many times again.” And soon. Harrington and Woods are to play in the same threesome (along with Rich Beem) for the first two rounds of the PGA Championship. After that, all we can hope for is another nice weekend.