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Tiger At Doral: Deja Vu All Over Again

MIAMI | Remember the quaint days when there were questions about whether Tiger Woods might ever be back? It’s okay to admit that you wondered or doubted. Who didn’t? But he never really went away. He went through a swing change, a life change and enough physical issues to keep the Mayo Clinic busy, and now that he’s on the other side of all that, it seems that we’re all back where we were a few years ago. Don’t believe what happened at the WGC Cadillac Championship last week where he made 27 birdies in his two-stroke win over Steve Stricker? Check out Torrey Pines in late January. Don’t believe that? Check the stock market. The new normal looks like the old normal. “His attitude and what I saw this week, his belief in himself again, looks very similar to where he was in the early 2000s or you can pick any year, I guess, when he was playing great,” Stricker said. “He just seems in a better place mentally, to me. He seems to be having fun. Seems to have a lot of confidence in himself and his game.” Think about this for a moment: In the past calendar year, Tiger Woods has won five PGA Tour events, the most recent coming Sunday at wind-blown Doral. That’s as many tournaments as Luke Donald, Matt Kuchar, Hunter Mahan, Brandt Snedeker and Nick Watney have won individually in their careers – and each of them is ranked among the top 25 in the world. Back? He has won five of his past 18 PGA Tour stroke-play starts. The only thing that will make Woods any more back would be to win his 15th major championship and since we can’t hurry the calendar to the second week in April, a 17th WGC trophy will have to do for the moment. But if you’re wondering who The Masters favorite is, you don’t need Google to figure out it’s the guy in the Sunday red shirt. “He’s playing at a very high level now, week in and week out,” said Phil Mickelson, who desperately wanted to play in the final pairing with Woods Sunday but was undone through the week by a putter running hot and cold. Was it vintage Tiger? It was today’s 37-year old Tiger. It was the Foley swing rather than the Harmon or Haney method but this isn’t about the designer. It’s about the guy making his swing. He’s won with four different swings. That’s how good he’s been. Graeme McDowell, who played both weekend rounds with Woods at Doral, ticked off the things that impressed him. Ball flight in the wind – “Pretty cool to watch.” Iron play – “Stunning.” Short game – ditto Putting – double ditto. “His driver looks a bit safe,” McDowell said. “He doesn’t look like he’s got the 350-yard bomb in him anymore that maybe he used to have. Everything is just under control off the tee. It’s a cut and it’s in play…Get it in the fairway and, from there, we know how good he is.” With Woods, it’s always been easy to read his golf mood by watching him. At Doral, he had the body language of a man who believed he could walk through a wall. Twirling his iron after a crisply hit approach shot. Arms extended after another 3-wood tee shot. A baby fist pump when another important putt would fall in. We’ve seen it 76 times now. Given his record at Bay Hill, we’re likely to see it again in two weeks and then, after Houston, The Masters will come more directly into focus. Woods’ distance control couldn’t have been better had he used a surveyor’s tools. It looked as if he were putting to a larger hole than everyone else. He had 100 putts over 72 holes, the fewest in his career. Woods hadn’t planned to get a putting lesson from Stricker on Wednesday. He’d hoped to play a practice round with his friend but when they crossed paths on the practice green, adjacent to Donald Trump’s gaudy cement fountain that features several water-spouting fish, a conversation turned to an instruction session. Would Tiger have putted as well without Stricker’s help? “I would like to say I probably would have but….there’s a but there,” Woods acknowledged. There was a passing moment Sunday afternoon when the question arose that Woods might not win. It didn’t last long. As it turned out, Sunday was just another reminder that Woods is the best finisher since the guillotine. He’s 17-for-17 when leading Tour events by four or more strokes entering the final round. All of it leads back to the major championship question with The Masters just a month away. Two wins before Augusta suggests he’s building toward a big year. “I felt toward the end of last year that…things were becoming better,” Woods said. Wins at Torrey Pines and Doral suggest that Woods is onto something. Again.


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