Allow me to clarify.
2009 was the last time the public saw Woods playing golf at a level even close to what they’d come to expect of the then-33-year-old, as he won six times -– and finished second three more times -– in 18 tournaments, including the four majors. However, since the much-discussed Thanksgiving 2009 incident, golf fans have been left wanting in terms of Tiger’s play, as he failed to win a single tournament between that year’s BMW Championship and the his own 2011 Silly Season Chevron World Challenge.
On Sunday, Woods captured the AT&T National, his third win in his last seven tries, which of course begs the question of whether or not Woods is "back" to the level of play that golf fans and officials alike were practically begging for. The answer is that, after nearly two years of trying to integrate swing changes under his third coach as a professional, Sean Foley, Tiger may well be finally be playing golf with a similar efficiency to his early ‘00s prime.
The problem for Woods is a very simple one, and something that’s already been thoroughly considered. Woods’ own popularity singlehandedly increased the popularity of the sport as a whole, bringing many more athletes into the golfing fold and creating deeper fields. 15 years after Woods first burst on the scene, we’re seeing this group of young players create the kind of weekly tournament fields where there are many, many more viable players — the Rory McIlroys and Rickie Fowlers of the Tour — who are capable of winning any given week.
Even before Woods’ extramarital affairs became public, this was already becoming apparent. At his peak, Woods was winning about half of the tournaments he entered, and, even at full health in 2009, he only won a third. His final major before the Thanksgiving car crash was particularly telling that players — after over a decade of playing second fiddle to the PGA Tour’s one-man show — weren’t afraid of Tiger in the same way, as Woods failed to win a major in which he shared at least a share of the 54-hole lead for the first time in his career.
The interesting thing in terms of Woods’ game in the here and now is that, statistically, there really isn’t that much room for improvement. Beyond the fact that his scoring average of 69.04 currently stands as the top mark on the PGA Tour, his sand save percentage (which has fallen about 10 percent and 50 slots from his 2000 peak) is one of only two facets of his game which have fallen significantly from his prime.
His driving accuracy now is about 7.5 percent worse than it was in 2000, but he’s also ranked 12 spots higher than he was at that point, pointing to the fact that keeping the ball in the short grass is more difficult for everyone on the Tour than it was a decade ago — a phenomenon that may even be chalked up to “Tiger-proofing” golf courses.
Tiger’s greens in regulation percentage has also fallen off about seven percent, but likewise that’s only cost him nine spots in the rankings, falling from first down to tenth. Even Woods’ putting, which has come under much scrutiny, ranks 11th this year on the Tour. Conversely, his scrambling percentage has only taken a 14-rank hit, down from third to 17th.
Perhaps these statistics shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise, given that Woods has the most wins on the Tour this year, has won the most money and leads in FedEx Cup points. Interestingly enough, the only other significant stat in which Woods has fallen off his old pace is driving distance, where he’s lost about three yards on average and gone from a no. 2 rank to 34th. That may be the best indication of the younger, more athletic fields around golf.
At the AT&T National, Woods may have been helped by his playing partner Bo Van Pelt, who bogeyed the final three holes of to seal his own fate. On the other hand, Woods showed at the Memorial Tournament just weeks ago that he’s still capable of conjuring the old magic and coming from behind. It may not have been as epic as the 2000 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am, where he came back from seven strokes down with seven holes to play to win — including an epic hole-out on 15 — but his chip-in on 16 at Muirfield Village was mighty impressive, recalling memories of the 1997 Masters — which NESN just named as one of the top-10 announcer calls of all-time.
Woods created the difficulties that he now faces just by being so good that others wanted to emulate him. He might not drive the ball quite as far as he used to, but otherwise Woods’ game is just as good as it’s ever been.
He just won’t win as often, and that’s his own fault, yet totally out of his control.