Cole: A remarkable return to the top
But Tiger's No. 1 ranking is no guarantee of Masters success
Tiger Woods plays a shot on the 17th hole during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard at the Bay Hill Club and Lodge on March 25, 2013 in Orlando, Fla. Woods won the tournament with a score of 13-under-par, two shots better than Justin Rose.
Photograph by: Sam Greenwood, Getty Images
Six hundred and twenty-four weeks, divided by 52, that's ... one hell of a statement, is what that is.
It represents the exclamation point that Tiger Woods put on his victory Monday in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at its namesake's Bay Hill club in Florida.
Not that he didn't already hold the record -- by a country mile -- for most weeks spent as the world's No. 1 player. But regaining the top perch, finally, after 29 months of spectacular self-destruction and revival, of relentless experimentation and practice, with a fair amount of failure thrown in each time he seemed to be on his way, makes it the equivalent of 12 years, on the nose, atop the rankings.
It's a nice round number to take into his next official start.
Yes, that would be The Masters.
And if you administered truth serum, he would tell you that No. 1 isn't nearly enough. Encouraging, sure. Satisfying? No way.
The ranking only tells you how far he has come. It doesn't tell you he's all the way back.
Because "back" -- by Woods's own standards -- means winning majors and until he has done that, post-scandal, he hasn't done it.
When Woods tees it up in Augusta on the second Thursday of April, it will have been two months shy of five years since he beat Rocco Mediate on one leg for the 2008 U.S. Open title at Torrey Pines.
Still, there is no denigrating what Woods has already achieved by chasing down all the young (and a few not-so-young) lions who ranked ahead of him during his self-immolation and subsequent rehabilitation: Not merely Lee Westwood, who had two stretches at the top, and Martin Kaymer, who was No. 1 for eight weeks, and Rory McIlroy and Luke Donald, who passed the baton to one another a total of seven times since May 2011, but all the "kids" who have been the flavours of the day, or a week or two, during those 29 months.
Rickie Fowler, Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson, Jason Day, Bubba Watson, Brandt Snedeker, Bill Haas, Justin Rose, Adam Scott ... and on and on. Major winners like Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel and Graeme McDowell, Ryder Cup hero Ian Poulter, big boomer Dustin Johnson. There were 57 players ranked ahead of Woods at the nadir of his slump, in November 2011.
Now there are none and though the points are close enough that there's no guarantee Woods will hang onto the top rung for stretches of 264 and 281 consecutive weeks, as he has done before, at the moment there is no one with anything like his degree of consistently high performance.
He's just better than anyone else and the proof comes virtually ever time he tees it up.
He has entered four PGA Tour stroke-play events in 2013 and won three of them. And more ominously than anything else for his would-be opponents, he's hitting the ball terribly off the tee, but he's back putting the way he did, if not better than, when he was reeling off majors in his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus's record 18.
In fact, Woods -- who rode a brief putting lesson from his longtime Ryder and Presidents cups partner Steve Stricker two weeks earlier at Doral to one of his best weeks in years on the greens -- putted better than the field's average at Bay Hill by 3.89 strokes per round. That's off the charts.
Combine that with the way he played Bay Hill's four par-fives (14-under on the week, eight-under on the weekend) and the two most important components of his four victories at the Masters appear to be nicely in hand.
He now has 77 victories at the age of 37 -- eight years ahead of the pace of the only man who has won more. Sam Snead was 45 when he recorded the 77th of his 82 career titles.
Considering where he has been in his life these past 2 1/2 years, it's frankly amazing Woods has put himself back in position to be the dominant player in the game again.
Not that he hasn't always had the most talent, but the laundry list of troubles -- self-inflicted or not -- that he has slogged through tells you just how stubborn, dogged and dedicated he has been to his craft, probably at the expense of everything else.
Think of it: The revelations involving porn stars, hostesses and waitresses, the car accident, the awkward televised public statement, rehab for sex addiction, the eventual divorce from Elin and loss of physical custody of their two children, the loss of his game and his aura, knee and Achilles injuries, the firing of caddie Steve Williams, coach Hank Haney's departure and subsequent tell-a-little book, 30 months without a PGA Tour win from Sept. 2009 until March 2012 ... and here he sits: No. 1.
Six Tour wins in a span of 366 calendar days, in which only two of 24 rounds were over par (by one stroke). All set, then, to take the next step?
He has won three tournaments prior to Augusta three times before -- 2000, 2003 and 2008 -- and didn't win the Masters any of those years.
Then there is this: In his 10 majors since the scandal, he has missed the cut once and shot a score of 73 or worse on the weekend in eight of the other nine. He won three times in 2012, but in the majors he was 15-over-par on the weekends (72-74 at the Masters, 75-73 at the U.S. Open, 70-73 at the Open Championship and 74-72 at the PGA).
So he has yet to prove, since his fall from grace, that he remembers how to close the deal under major championship pressure.
Winning regular Tour events on courses he loves to play? No problem. His six victories in the past year have come on courses where he has won 31 times.
He loves Augusta National, too. But it has been eight years since she returned his affections.
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