ORLANDO, Florida - Now that Tiger Woods has ended his 30-month victory drought on the PGA Tour, the question turns to whether the former world number one can win again where it really counts - in a major championship, starting with the Masters.
If it seems a little dismissive of Woods’ victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday to immediately turn the focus to the April 5-8 Masters, well, that is a little bit how Tiger himself reacted on Sunday.
Asked where his 72nd PGA Tour victory ranked, Woods said: “It’s not like winning a major championship or anything, but it certainly feels really good.”
Woods has long judged other players by whether or not they have won a major, and with 14 to his name he knows all about what it takes to succeed in the ultimate tests for a golfer.
But now Woods, who has not triumphed at one of golf’s four majors since the 2008 U.S. Open, has to prove it all again.
Sunday’s win at Bay Hill was an important step for Woods as it ended a once-unthinkable barren spell and proved that he has the mental fortitude to keep his cool on a Sunday afternoon and make it over the finish line.
After battling injuries, swing changes and the difficulty of coping with mediocre results, let alone the mental strain of a marriage breakdown and the accompanying negative publicity, “getting it done” mattered for Woods.
The manner of his five-shot win was also important as Woods drove straight, found greens and putted solidly while runner-up Graeme McDowell never really challenged.
Gusty and unpredictable winds, coupled with fast greens that proved tough for many players at Bay Hill, seemed unable to faze Woods, who shot four consecutive sub-par rounds in a tournament for the first time since the 2010 Masters.
But the victory needs to be put in context. The tournament featured none of last week’s top six ranked players and came on very friendly terrain - it was Woods’s seventh at a venue which for years was practically a home course for him.
Woods also feels at home at Augusta National, where he is a four-times winner, but the imposing course in Georgia poses many more challenges than Palmer’s Bay Hill.
While the former world number one is now comfortable and in control with the new swing introduced by Canadian coach Sean Foley, his putting remains the part of his game that he has yet to get back to the high standards of his past.
And nowhere tests a man’s skills on the green more than Augusta National with its complex slopes, tricky reads and an unforgiving speed.
“I understand how to play Augusta National, and it’s just a matter of executing the game plan,” Woods said after his victory but he knows it is not going to be that simple.
“I still need some work, and it’s going to be good to get a week off and work on a few things. I enjoyed the progression we made this week ... I was able to hit some really good shots the last two days, and that’s a very good sign going into Augusta.”
Presuming the new swing, which some observers now believe to be more reliable than the one used in his prime, holds firm then putting will be the absolute key to whether or not Woods can, as the bookmaker’s believe, claim a fifth victory at the Masters.
“He’s always a force to be reckoned with when he’s not playing his best golf, and obviously he’s playing a lot of good golf right now,” said England’s Ian Poulter.
“The shots he’s hit, just looking at the highlights, he’s got a lot of his game back and when he starts rolling putts in, he’s dangerous so he’s going to be a force for everybody at Augusta.”
Those at Augusta will include world number one Luke Donald, still seeking his first major win; number two Rory McIlroy, looking for a second major win as well as three-times Masters winner Phil Mickelson.
It is perfectly set up for a memorable tournament and one where we should learn a little more about whether Tiger Woods really is getting back to his very best.
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