Nearly a year ago, I wrote that Tiger Woods could become the next Ken Griffey Jr., a transcendant athlete who turned mortal before rewriting the history books of their respective sports. Instead of breaking their sport’s most sacred record, they broke down physically.
I said at the time that I didn’t think Woods would win another major championship, and maybe not another regular PGA Tour event.
Woods recently proved me wrong on one account – his 5-shot win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill two weeks ago reminiscent of many of his 71 previous tour victories.
Starting Thursday at Augusta National, Woods has a chance to prove me – and thousands of other skeptics – wrong again by winning the 76th Masters.
Unlike many, who either never rooted for Woods or stopped when the public disclosures of his off-course transgressions hastened his plunge from one of the most revered athletes in sports to among the most reviled, I didn’t revel in being right.
Quite the opposite. Though I nearly stopped watching golf after too many Sunday afternoons wasted away watching the likes of Charl Schwarzel and Louie Oosthuizen win majors, Rory McIlroy renewed my interest by winning last year’s U.S. Open after blowing the Masters.
But something – or better yet, someone – was missing.
It helped when Phil Mickelson won at Pebble Beach and nearly at Riviera the next week earlier this year. I thought at the time that Mickelson, at age 42 and with his own career imperiled by injury, could serve as an inspiration for Woods.
Woods had teased us a little with his own abbreviated run at Pebble before getting blown away by Mickelson on Sunday and then by posting a final-round 62, his lowest career round, at Honda before McIlroy cruised to his own easy win.
But it certainly started to fire up talk about a new rivalry between Woods and McIlroy – and maybe even a modern day Big Three with Mickelson in the mix.
The chatter quickly stopped when it was reported that Woods had suffered a strained Achilles, and that his appearance at Bay Hill – and possibly even at Augusta National – was in jeopardy. Unlike the recent past, when little injuries turned into surgery, this one healed up and Woods was playing again.
And winning again, for the first time at a full-field event since the 2009 Australian Masters. (Though I had counted his own invitational last year during the 2011 Silly Season as a quality win, considering he had he had to make putts on the last two holes to overtake Zach Johnson most had discounted it.)
Obviously, the same wasn’t true for his win over Bay Hill. He didn’t lap the field as he used to in posting those now historic double-digit wins at the 1997 Masters (12 shots) and the 2000 U.S. Open (15), but it was impressive enough to make Woods the betting favorite this week.
As much as I would love to see McIlroy redeem himself for his final round collapse a year ago to claim his second major championship in less than a year, as much as I would love to see Mickelson win another green jacket, what I really want to see is for Woods to renew his chase of Jack Nicklaus’ records of 18 major championships.
I still think Jack’s record is safe, given the depth of quality in golf since Woods last won a major, his one-legged victory over Rocco Mediate in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. I also realize that anyone who’s undergone four separate knee surgeries is one awkward twist away from being sidelined again.
While this year’s major championship venues do not set up as well for him as last year – he finished back in the pack at the 1998 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club as well as at the 2001 Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes – I do think that Woods could make things interesting for the first time in three years.
Which is why I can’t wait to see how things unfold this weekend at Augusta, where the azalaes are done for the year but apparently Tiger is not.