Since the infamous Thanksgiving Night 2009 car crash, Tiger Woods, once a sure thing to pass Jack's record of 19 major championships, has won just five times on the PGA Tour. All of those wins have come in a 13-month stretch, starting with the 2012 Arnold Palmer Invitational, and culminating in his won at Doral just recently. (And I'm not counting the Chevron because, c'mon, only host Tiger himself thinks that's a real tournament.)
Woods now has 76 wins on the PGA Tour, behind only Sam Snead's mark of 82 wins. His 14 majors trail just Nicklaus, and, if you're inclined to go there, he's also third all-time in European Tour wins (behind Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer) because they sanction the majors and WCG tournaments, which Tiger has dominated.
As Tiger marches back towards the world number one ranking, and readies for the first major of the season, let's take a look at his journey back from 58th in the world rankings.
Number Five: Arnold Palmer Invitational
As I mentioned before, Tiger Woods went into the 2012 Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay not exactly in winning form. Sure, he won his own 18-man Chevron World Challenge in December of 2011, but Tiger had been winless in meaningful events worldwide since the JBWere Masters in November, 2009. After losing the world number one ranking he had held since mid-2005 at the end of October, 2010, Tiger ballooned all the way up to 58th in the world a year later. A lackluster showing at the lowly Frys.com Open only made his outlook for 2012 look bleaker.
Tiger had battled various injuries throughout his winless streak, and the seemingly unbeatable stranglehold that he held over final-round competition was slipping away. He had blown final-round chances at Augusta, Australia, Pebble Beach, and Abu Dhabi all in the last year, but Woods seemed to gain a newfound sense of confidence with a final-round 62 at the Honda Classic in March.
The Arnold Palmer Invitational is one of Tiger's favorites of the season, judging by his record. He first won in 2000, and rattled off four straight wins. He won back-to-back in 2008 and 2009, though as the course got tougher through the years his scores began increasing.
Tiger went into Bay Hill just weeks after a Sunday withdrawal at the WGC-Cadillac Championship, with most people assuming he was coming back too fast from an injury. When he jumped out to a 36-hole lead at Arnie's tournament there were a few optimistic onlookers, but most people were expecting him to fail. Let me rephrase that: expecting him to fail. This is Tiger Woods we're talking about. 14-time major winner; (now) 76-time PGA Tour winner. And it wasn't an uncommon belief that he might never raise another trophy.
But hitting 17 of 18 greens in the second round heals a lot of wounds, and when he cruised to a five-shot win over Graeme McDowell, even the Northern Irishman was congratulatory, saying, "It was great to have a front-row seat watching maybe the greatest of all-time doing what he does best: winning golf tournaments."
Number Four: Memorial Tournament
As bad as Tiger's record was going into Bay Hill, it wasn't so great as Jack's tournament neared. Tiger tied for 40th at the Masters, missed the cut at Quail Hollow, and finished T40 at The Players, one of the worst stretches of career.
The Memorial is another of Tiger's best events, though after his initial three wins between 1999 and 2001, he went winless for seven years. He managed to squeak out a one-shot win in 2009, but winning against a field that strong is always an impressive feat.
Tiger went 70-69-73 over the first three rounds, and entered Sunday four strokes back of leader Spencer Levin. He played well on the front nine, and was a few shots back of Levin as the leaderboard tightened. On the par-three 16th hole, Woods had just a mid-iron into the green, but his approached bounced through the putting surface and into Murfield's thick greenside rough. With water looming long and a green that ran away from him, Tiger's only option to get the ball close was… well, he didn't really have that option. He grabbed his lob wedge, took nearly a full swing, and popped the ball straight up in the air. It landed softly, picked up a bit of speed, and then, well, here's the video:
Another birdie on the 18th hole sealed him the two-stroke victory over Andres Romero, and Tiger's win tied him with tournament host Jack Nicklaus on the all-time PGA Tour wins list. Post-round, Jack said of Tiger's chip-in, "I don't think under the circumstances I've ever seen a better shot."
Number Three: AT&T National
After choking away the U.S. Open, Tiger Woods went to his own tournament, the AT&T National, at Congressional Country Club. In good shape but still battling a season-long struggle against his short irons, Tiger got off to a relatively slow start. Solid Friday and Saturday rounds of 68 and 67 put him into second place though, one shot shy of Brendon de Jonge.
Bo Van Pelt emerged as his main competitor after the front nine on Sunday, and the two of them went back-and-forth all afternoon. Tiger made three separate birdie putts down the stretch, and each time Bo answered him. When Tiger bogyed the 16th, Bo bogeyed the 16. Maybe because he isn't as fitness-obsessed as Tiger, or maybe just because he made a few ill-timed miscues, but Bo faded on the last few holes, and Tiger managed to win two-up in the blistering Maryland heat.
Number Two: Farmers Insurance Open
Despite winning the lead-in tournament to the first two majors of the season, and nearly doing it a third time (Tiger missed the cut at The Greenbrier Classic between the AT&T National and The Open), Woods ultimately went winless in the majors in 2012. The last three were close calls but shoddy late-round play and surges from other players kept him out of it. Tiger continued that play in the Playoffs, and finished third in the final rankings.
He kicked off 2013 unceremoniously, missing the cut at in Abu Dhabi with rounds of 72 and 75 (world number one Rory McIlroy followed suit). The Farmers Insurance Open, formerly known as the Buick Invitational, was long one of Tiger's best tournaments. Played at Torrey Pines, Tiger first won the Buick in 1999, when he tied the four-round scoring record of -22. Tiger won again in 2003, then four years in a row from 2005 to 2008.
Like most stats one can cite about Tiger, he hadn't won at Torrey since the torn-knee U.S. Open in 2008, and in his way was defending champ Brandt Snedeker.
Sneds jumped out to a quick first-round lead, shooting a 65, but 75 the next day opened up the leaderboard. Tiger backed an opening 68 with a 65, and took the 36-hole lead. That advantage was extended to six shot at the end of Sunday, though persistent fog forced a Monday finish. Tiger did make it interesting in the end, shooting four-over on holes 14 though 17, but all that did was cut his commanding lead to four-up over Snedeker.
Number One: WGC-Cadillac Championship
We end with the most recent win, and at another venue that Tiger has historically dominated (sensing a pattern?). Tiger triumphed over the original Ford Championship at Doral, a PGA Tour event until 2006, in its last two iterations. He won at Doral the very next year, in 2007, the first time it hosted the WGC Championship (with the title sponsor CA at that point). And that event, which used to be the WGC-American Express Championship, was won by Tiger five times in seven playings around the U.S. And Europe.
Coming off a lackluster finish at the Honda Classic, with a whopping 12-shot higher score than his Sunday round a year ago, Tiger actually played second fiddle in the sports news cycle to Rory McIlroy going into Doral. Woods managed to get off to a hot start, jumping out to a tie for the first round lead with Graeme McDowell, Fredrik Jacobson, and Bubba Watson. Lurking, though, were Steve Stricker and Phil Mickelson. Woods took the solo lead after 36 holes, and never looked back.
Tiger extended that lead to three strokes after 54, and he stepped to the 72nd tee up by a few shots. He managed to make it interesting on the last hole, driving his tee shot into the right trees, but like he had all week, Tiger managed to make a putt when he most needed to.
Woods finished two strokes in front of Steve Stricker, who had given him an impromptu putting lesson on the Wednesday before the tournament, and Tiger is already being hailed at the favorite for Bay Hill, where he could regain the top world ranking with a win, and Augusta, which looms less than a month away.
Closing and Your Thoughts?
The return of Tiger Woods from relative obscurity has been a strange one. Just over a years ago, there were people in the forum predicting that he might never again raise a trophy. He's still certainly not the player he once was, and that sort of perfection is likely something none of us will never see again, but not a single professional on the globe has won more golf tournament over the last 12 months than Tiger Woods. And that was never a given.