To­day’s best won­der what it was like to face Tiger

South Florida Times - - FRONT PAGE - By DOUG FER­GU­SON

HONOLULU (AP) — The ques­tion was as much rhetor­i­cal as it was cyn­i­cal.

Matt Kuchar was play­ing alone on a slow Mon­day in Shang­hai last fall, hold­ing court on all things golf in be­tween shots when the topic turned to Tiger Woods. Out of the game for nine months, Woods had just be­gun to post video of his swing.

Woods was still a week away from an­nounc­ing he would re­turn to com­pe­ti­tion in the Ba­hamas after re­cov­er­ing from a fourth back surgery.

“Do you think guys to­day be­lieve they could have taken on Tiger at his best?” Kuchar asked.

He didn’t of­fer an an­swer, per­haps know­ing that just like com­par­ing gen­er­a­tions, there are no an­swers, only spec­u­la­tion. Be­sides, what could any­one say?

“You’d be stupid to say you couldn’t. You’d be doubt­ing your­self,” U.S. Open cham­pion Brooks Koepka said. “I watched it grow­ing up. I knew ex­actly how good he was. I wish I could have played against him. I think it would be cool to com­pare your­self to it.”

The ques­tion now is whether it’s too late to find out.

Woods be­gins the real test in his lat­est come­back this week in the Farm­ers In­surance Open at Tor­rey Pines, the pub­lic course along the Pa­cific bluffs that once served as his per­sonal play­ground. He won eight times as a pro at Tor­rey Pines, in­clud­ing the 2008 U.S. Open.

He looked healthy — and strong — in the Ba­hamas, when he tied for ninth at the Hero World Chal­lenge against an 18-man field. Scout­ing re­ports from the elite in golf who have played with him over the last few months have been glow­ing. While it’s doubt­ful that Woods — now 42 and with eight surg­eries be­hind him — can ever get back to who he was on the golf course, it’s enough to won­der how close he can get.

Only then will to­day’s stars get an idea of how they could fare.

“Truth be told, I’d love to have these young guys that are dom­i­nat­ing the game have a piece — just one year — of what we ex­pe­ri­enced,” Zach John­son said.

John­son is among 78 play­ers who have been run­ner-up to Woods on the PGA Tour. He fin­ished eight shots back in 2007 at the Tour Cham­pi­onship.

Ste­wart Cink was in­trigued by the ques­tion.

He com­peted against Woods his en­tire ca­reer and knows how dif­fi­cult it could be. Cink tied for sec­ond when Woods won Bay Hill by 11 shots. He also was on the wrong end of an 8-and-7 out­come when Woods won his third Match Play ti­tle.

“I’ve played with Tiger when he was play­ing the best he’s ever played, and it was a real treat to see it — al­though it wasn’t a treat to be hu­mil­i­ated by his dom­i­nance,” Cink said. “I’ve also played with some of these younger guys. They’re special play­ers. I would love for the game to give us Tiger get­ting back to where he was so we could see what he would do against Justin Thomas, Dustin John­son, Jor­dan Spi­eth and Rory McIl­roy.

“The golf world would get a real kick out of it.”

Thomas, Dustin John­son and Spi­eth are the last three play­ers to be voted PGA Tour player of the year. They are ma­jor cham­pi­ons. Could they have taken him?

“My self-con­fi­dence and self-be­lief would say, ‘Yes,’” Thomas said.

Then he paused and be­gan to smile be­fore adding with a chuckle, “But ev­ery­thing I’ve watched and ev­ery­thing I’ve heard ... no.”

Thomas learned last year that he didn’t need his ab­so­lute best stuff to win tour­na­ments. He’s not sure any­thing but his best would have worked against Woods.

Dustin John­son, the No. 1 player in the world, has 17 vic­to­ries on the PGA Tour. Woods played in only one of those events, the 2010 BMW Cham­pi­onship.

“If I’m play­ing my best? Yeah, I’d take him,” John­son said. “But over the course of a sea­son? For nine years, 10 years in a row? He kept that level up for 10 years. That’s very, very sick. My best ver­sus his best, I think it’s go­ing to be neck and neck. But he was play­ing at his best for 10 years.”

Spi­eth, re­al­iz­ing there is no way of know­ing be­cause of how much the game has changed in 10 years, found his an­swer in num­bers.

There are a lot of num­bers when it comes to Tiger.

Spi­eth had his best year in 2015 when his five PGA Tour vic­to­ries in­cluded two ma­jors. Woods had years that good or bet­ter in 2000, 2002, 2005 and 2006.

“You get out here and you get caught up in the world rank­ing, what you’re do­ing com­pared with those around you,” Spi­eth said. “It’s not un­til you look at data, or sta­tis­tics, where I’ve started to see, ‘Wow, that was ab­so­lutely in­cred­i­ble.’ The win per­cent­age is the most amaz­ing stat of his ca­reer.”

Un­til Woods had his first back surgery in April 2014, his rate of win­ning on the PGA Tour was 26 per­cent. Spi­eth is the most rea­son­able com­par­i­son be­cause of his age and the sched­ule he keeps. He al­ready has 11 wins and two ma­jors at age 24. His rate of win­ning is 9 per­cent.

“It’s ab­surd,” Spi­eth said. “What he was able to do year in and year out ... I don’t think it’s go­ing to hap­pen again.”

But to get just a glimpse of it, would that be ask­ing too much?

PHOTO COURTESY OF PRINX MAU­RICE

Tiger Woods

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