HE’S BACK and aren’t we bet­ter for it

Inside Golf - - Cover Story - Rob wil­lis

IF any­one needed ev­i­dence Tiger Woods was again on the prowl, the re­cent Aus­tralian Open was ex­hibit ‘A’.

He led early, fal­tered some­what on Satur­day, be­fore stag­ing a fi­nal round charge, but it was the old swag­ger and the sub­lime ball strik­ing which stood him apart from the rest. He made a few un­forced er­rors on Satur­day and didn’t man­age to make enough putts through­out the week to win at the Lakes, but the signs were there.

The Pres­i­dents Cup was ex­hibit ‘B’. The first few days he strug­gled with the part­ner thing, but Tiger was never great at four­balls and four­somes even back in his glory years. Tee to green he was im­pres­sive at Royal Mel­bourne and his putting was closer on what were dev­il­ishly dif­fi­cult greens. Then on Sun­day against Aaron Bad­de­ley he el­e­vated his game to an­other level – just like he used to when it re­ally mat­tered.

You could see in his body lan­guage he knew he was on the cusp of be­ing back to where he wants to be.

From there it was to the Chevron in Cal­i­for­nia. Largely an ex­hi­bi­tion, an event where some take it more se­ri­ously than oth­ers, the Chevron brings to­gether 18 of the world’s best play­ers. When he had a chance to win, Tiger was def­i­nitely one of those to take the event se­ri­ously.

It was Tiger ‘the­atre’ of days gone by. Zach John­son pro­vided the sup­port, per­form­ing strongly enough to bring some­thing spe­cial out of Tiger, who man­aged to rekin­dle the flame of years gone. It was one of those mo­ments when, de­spite the fact he was one shot be­hind with two holes to play, ev­ery­one sensed Tiger was about to find a way to win. It was just like it used to be.

When he knocked in that putt on 18 from about eight feet, John­son pro­duced a grin and a nod which would have been re­cip­ro­cated by not only those in the Chevron field, but by all who were around two years or more ago and had ex­pe­ri­enced nu­mer­ous a Tiger ‘mo­ments’.

Some may not have nod­ded and smiled like John­son, rather they could have cursed the fact that Tiger was claw­ing back. How­ever happy for his suc­cess or other­wise, all will agree the golf­ing world will be bet­ter for it. A hun­gry Tiger de­vour­ing golf cour­ses and dom­i­nat­ing ma­jor tour­na­ments is what has been miss­ing since the Aus­tralian Masters of 2009. And I for one am glad that he has turned a cor­ner and is back on track.

The Aus­tralian Open in Syd­ney showed that de­spite hav­ing a col­lec­tion of the world’s best play­ers, in­clud­ing all the lead­ing lo­cal hopes, if you have Tiger, you have a sig­nif­i­cant event.

The gal­leries flocked to see Tiger, to watch his ev­ery move, to live ev­ery shot. With all due re­spect, it was only when he was fin­ished for the day that the crowds moved on to watch the likes of Adam Scott, Ja­son Day, Ge­off Ogilvy, Dustin John­son,

Bubba Wat­son, Matt Kuchar and com­pany. Dur­ing any other year they are star at­trac­tions at the Aus­tralian Open. With Tiger in the field they were the sup­port­ing cast.

What­ever the event or­gan­is­ers and the NSW Govern­ment paid Tiger was well worth it. Such was the value for money they should dou­ble down next year and do it all again.

With the ap­par­ent res­ur­rec­tion of the Tiger, club­house de­bates are sure to again cen­tre on whether the records of the great Jack Nick­laus are un­der threat. Ar­gu­ments will rage as to who might be the best of all time.

Some will say Jack is the great­est of all time. They say the tal­ent was bet­ter. He had to beat Player and Palmer, Wat­son and Miller, Trevino, all su­per­stars in their own right. As Devil’s Ad­vo­cate on the side of Tiger, I counter that while there is no doubt they pro­vided for­mi­da­ble op­po­si­tion and were cham­pi­ons of the sport dur­ing their time, they were just a hand­ful who were ca­pa­ble of chal­leng­ing.

My ra­tio­nale says Tiger now faces fields where up­wards of 50 guys can the­o­ret­i­cally win on any given week. The depth of tal­ent, for rea­sons I will get to, has never been as strong as right now.

I am firm in the be­lief the young­sters of the day have no fear of suc­cess. Kee­gan Bradley had never even played in a ma­jor be­fore he won the US PGA. Rory Mcil­roy is barely out of his teens. He won the

US Open. Charl Schwartzel, an­other young gun was some­one who had never pre­vi­ously threat­ened on a Sun­day in one of the big four cham­pi­onships. He stormed home with birdies on the four clos­ing holes to claim the Masters.

The the­ory back in the day was you had to lose a ma­jor or two be­fore win­ning one. The young­sters of to­day are obliv­i­ous to that hy­poth­e­sis.

Then there is the phys­i­cal el­e­ment. Jack dom­i­nated be­cause of his length and strength. He over­pow­ered cour­ses and in­tim­i­dated his op­po­si­tion in the process.

These days ev­ery­body is long, some are just a lit­tle longer than oth­ers. Tiger ad­mits he can’t keep up with the likes of Dustin John­son, Bubba Wat­son and Gary Wood­land. The driv­ing dis­tance av­er­age on the PGA Tour in 2011 was 290 yards. A decade ago that was the al­most the mark of the driv­ing dis­tance leader. Even if Tiger smashes it past most of them, 10 yards on his ri­vals hardly gives him the mas­sive ad­van­tage in length Jack once had over the ma­jor­ity of the con­tenders.

Throw in the equip­ment avail­able to­day—the balls, the clubs and the driver— it all equates to the fact that hit­ting it out of the mid­dle of the club­face isn’t the pri­or­ity it once was. Modern tech­nol­ogy comes to­gether to take a lit­tle bit of skill out of the equa­tion and to bring the fields closer to­gether. The win­ning scores haven’t changed much, but the av­er­age player is closer to the best nowa­days than he ever was.

Jack’s tal­ent was al­lowed to cre­ate a wider gap than Tiger could ever hope to en­joy over his com­pe­ti­tion be­cause of the equip­ment that was avail­able to him and his col­leagues. Jack was out­stand­ing, yes, but his bril­liance was al­lowed to pros­per where to­day fac­tors con­spire to bring Tiger back to the pack.

So in the com­ing months, and the next few years, it will be­come clearer for all. If Tiger’s re­turn to promi­nence over the past few weeks is the start of some­thing spe­cial, tour­na­ment golf could be fun again. Even those who hold Tiger’s off-course in­dis­cre­tions against him, us­ing them as a rea­son to wish fail­ure upon him, if they have any de­sire for the game of golf to pros­per, to be on the back page in­stead of an af­ter­thought 10 pages in, they too will have no choice but to join the masses in hop­ing that a sec­ond Tiger com­ing is on the hori­zon.

Is Tiger the best player of all time? We could soon find out. Some will say ‘not yet’ and then lean on the record books for back up. At this stage the ma­jor­ity would prob­a­bly agree with them. How­ever what­ever the an­swer, which­ever side of the fence you might sit, the re­al­ity is Tiger fans such as my­self now have good rea­son to be­lieve.

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