There's been plenty of emphasis this week on the joint announcement via Facebook and Twitter that Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn made of their relationship. Less attention has been paid to what Woods has been doing on the course. It's been impressive, to say the least, and maybe the focus will return to his golf rather than his personal life as the Arnold Palmer Invitational begins Thursday at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando.
Woods has won two of the four tournaments he's played this year. He won his most recent tournament, the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship at the Doral Resort & Spa's Blue Monster course in Miami. He also won the first tournament he played this year, the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines's South course in La Jolla, Calif. Woods won the 2008 U.S. Open there. That was the last of his 14 wins in major championships.
As all the golf world, and most of the rest of the world, know, Woods's multiple infidelities were exposed in November, 2009, when he rammed his car into a hydrant just outside his home in Orlando in the middle of the night. He pretty well went into hiding, as much hiding as was possible for him, after that. Woods didn't play again until the 2010 Masters, where he tied for fourth. He didn't win again on the PGA Tour until the Arnold Palmer Invitational a year ago this week.
Woods's play has continued to improve since then, as, apparently, has his personal life. He won two more PGA Tour events last year after coming through at Bay Hill, meaning three wins on the season. That's a phenomenal year for any golfer. But Woods has never been any golfer. He's all about the majors, and he didn't win one last year. His best finish in a major was a tie for third at the Open Championship in July.
Still, it's foolish to ignore what he has accomplished as he continues what he and his swing coach Sean Foley often refer to as the "process" of working on his game. He's won five of his last 19 PGA Tour events. Now he's back at Bay Hill, where he has won seven times. He's obviously the betting favourite this week. He's the betting favourite for the Masters, which starts on April 11th.
Woods hasn't won the Masters since 2005, the fourth time he put on the green jacket that goes to the winner. He won there in 1997 by 12 shots in his first full season as a professional. He won in 2001 and 2002, and then in 2005.
Woods is doing everything better in his game than he did a year ago at Bay Hill. He's putting the ball in play more frequently off the tee, especially when he needs to. He's back to cutting the ball as needed, and having that left to right shot on demand is critical to his chances of winning the Masters. Woods didn't have the cut or fade in his bag in his early days of working with Foley. He hit the ball right to left almost exclusively. No more. Oddly enough, he doesn't seem as comfortable going right to left; he does hit some wild shots when he tries to draw the ball. Still, Woods is closer to being a complete golfer again.
His short game is also closer to what it needs to be for Woods to win his 15th major and get one closer to Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 major championships. Woods will need a deft short game at the Augusta National Golf Club. If the course plays firm and fast, missing a green by a little effectively means missing it a lot because the ball scampers away off the slopes. Woods, like all golfers at the Masters, will require imagination and creativity in his short game. He's demonstrated that he has these qualities while winning those 14 majors.
Then there's his putting. Woods appears to be getting control of the speed of his putts again; his friend and fellow PGA Tour player Steve Stricker helped him at Doral with his putting. For a while Woods was coming up too short or too long to give himself the tap-ins for pars that make life easier for a golfer. He's not where he was with his putting when he was so dominant that he made it seem there was Woods's golf world and everybody else's golf world. But he's getting closer to making people watching him believe he will make every short putt he stands over, and those mid-length putts he used to roll in almost at will.
Who didn't think he would make the 18-foot putt on the final hole of regulation play in the 2008 U.S. Open to get into a playoff against Rocco Mediate? The ball bounced and hopped over the imperfections in the green, but it still went in. That was Woods when he was winning majors. He believed he would make putts. Later he started taking too long over the ball. He looked unsure.
Clearly, then, Woods is a much-improved player now than even a year ago when he won at Bay Hill. At the same time, he took a three-shot lead into the final hole at Doral, but he missed the fairway off the tee, and then nearly put a wedge into the water in front of the green after playing his second back to the fairway. He wouldn't have made such a mistake when he was number one in the world by a wide margin. Still, he did win the tournament by two shots over Stricker.
"I feel like my game's becoming more efficient, and it's more consistent day in and day out, and I'm very pleased with the progress I've made with Sean," Woods said after he won.
Should Woods win this week, he will take over the number one world ranking from Rory McIlroy, who isn't entered. Palmer said at Bay Hill today that he's surprised McIlroy isn't playing.
Meanwhile, whether or not Woods wins at Bay Hill, his sights are set on the Masters in three weeks. His focus is narrow, and his belief in himself is getting stronger. Woods has been the most interesting golfer in the world for years. He's returning to form, and that only makes him that much more interesting – no matter what is happening in his life off the course.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at email@example.com . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein