Tiger Woods is back. With two wins and a third in five events, and after out-dueling Phil Mickelson and a very tough field to win the Ford Championship at Doral, Woods has regained the #1 ranking in the world. The only question is whether Tiger is back to his stratospheric 2000 game or merely the best in the world again.
A more intriguing question, however, might be whether this will usher in another golden era of golf. The PGA always had a bit of a quandary when Tiger Woods was dominating the game to an unprecedented degree. Sure Tiger changed the nature of the game and made it popular around the world to young and old alike. Sure when Tiger was in the field attendance, and money, jumped to new heights. But there was the flip side too. When Tiger wasn’t in the field attendance, ratings, and revenue slumped. A part of this was the lack of competition. When he took the lead in a tournament every one else seemed to fade. Players like Phil Mickelson, Davis Love, Vijay Singh, and Ernie Els just didn’t seem to have what it took at crunch time to knock Tiger off his throne. For the PGA there was Tiger and then there was everyone else.
All that changed when Tiger began to struggle and the rest of the tour picked up the slack. Those behind Tiger had been working so hard to catch him that when he seemed to slow down they seized the moment.
Last year Mickelson won his first major at Augusta and finished no worse than 6th in the rest of the majors. But Lefty never quite got it going enough to threaten #1. Ernie Els thought he had a win at the Masters until Mickelson snatched it away with his birdie. A missed putt at the British Open cost him a victory there too. A cruel U.S Open course ended his hopes of #1.
No the man who finally knocked Tiger off his pedestal was 41-year-old Vijay Singh. Singh, whose work ethic is legendary, won nine times in 2004, earned over ten million dollars, and became the #1-ranked player in the world. In previous years Vijay had struggled with Tiger in the field but not anymore. He held off a charging Woods to win the Buick Invitational; prevailed in a playoff to win the PGA Championship; and then out-dueled Tiger Woods to win the Deutsche Bank Championship and formally claim the top ranking. Vijay finished atop the world rankings, the money list, and claimed Player of the Year honors.
But during the silly season–the time of unofficial events and Skins games–Tiger looked like he was getting things together. In November he shot four rounds in the sixties to win the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan by eight strokes. Then the following month he won his own Target World Challenge. Was Tiger back?
After struggling with his putter in a third place finish at the season opening Mercedes Championship everyone was wondering if Tiger could find a way to win; not just threaten, but win. Tiger answered that question later that month overcoming foggy conditions at Torrey Pines to win the Buick Invitational for the third time. It looked like Tiger was back.
But Phil Mickelson wasn’t exactly backing down. He shot a 60 in the second round of the FBR Open and never looked back on his way to a runaway five-stroke victory. Despite a final round 73, Mickelson cruised to back-to-back victories the next week; winning the Pebble Beach Pro Am wire-to-wire and with a four-stroke margin.
Coming into the Ford Championship at Doral’s Blue Monster everything was set. Eleven of the top twelve players in the world were in the field; including #1-ranked Vijay Singh, who already had a win–the Sony Open–under his belt as well. With Singh ranked #1, Tiger at #2, and Lefty at #4 only Ernie Els was missing.
Mickelson picked up where he left off, shooting 64, 66, and 66 to take the lead into the final round. But Tiger was determined not to be left out. Tiger followed his opening round 65 with a 70, but powered his way into the final group on Sunday with an amazing 63 on Saturday. Tiger had a flawless round. No bogeys and nine birdies and 30 on the back nine. He drove the par 4 sixteenth off the tee with a draw dropping 330-yard drive and just missed his eagle putt. After a birdie on the final hole Tiger was in second place trailing Phil by two strokes. The world of golf would get what it had been waiting for all these years: a duel between a hot Tiger Woods and a hot Phil Mickelson. The bonus? If Tiger won he would reclaim the #1 ranking from Vijay.
Expectations were high on Sunday, as everyone knew that it would take quite a few birdies to win. The NBC announcers could hardly believe their good fortune as they salivated at describing a duel between two of the most popular players in the world on a beautiful course requiring aggressive play. Needless to say neither player let them down.
Both players birdied the first hole and the race was on. A pivotal moment came at the par three fourth. With Tiger looking at a difficult par putt and Mickelson with a birdie chance it looked like Lefty might put some distance between himself and Woods. But Tiger made his par putt while Mickelson missed his birdie try. Opportunity missed. Tiger made birdie on the next hole and they both birdied the par five eighth. With the back nine to play, Mickelson was holding a slim one-shot lead.
Tiger soon made that up and then some. Mickelson made par while Tiger birdied the par five tenth to square the match. Then Tiger made some of his signature magic. He laced a three wood 290 yards on the par five twelfth to set up an eagle putt, which he drained for a two shot lead. Suddenly it looked like Tiger was once more going to intimidate his rival and win running away. But this wasn’t the old Mickelson either. With beautiful tee shots and approaches Mickelson birdied the next two holes to tie it up again. All tied with four to go. The 30,000-strong galleries were holding their breath when they weren’t shouting out encouragement to their respective favorite.
On the par-four sixteenth tee everybody was wondering if Tiger or Phil would try to drive the green like Woods had on Saturday. Ironically, both players ended up with bogeys on the shortest par four on the course. After Tiger missed a 16-footer for par, Mickelson failed to take advantage, lipping out his five-foot par putt. In typically Tiger fashion Woods seized the moment by sinking a 30-foot birdie putt on the next hole to take the lead.
So it would all come down to the last hole. Appropriately both players had monster drives that landed within a yard of each other. When Tiger’s approach landed far to the right of the flag it looked like Phil had an opening, but he flew the green. As the tension mounted, Tiger’s putt slipped by the hole leaving him a testy one coming back. All eyes were now on Mickelson. If ever there were a time for his heroic short game it was here. For a moment it looked like just that, as his chip rolled toward the cup it seemed on line and on pace. But just like his par putt on 16, Mickelson’s ball touched the lip but didn’t drop. Tiger made his six-footer for par and regained the ranking he had lost 26 weeks before. Tiger Woods was the number one player in the world once again (or at least he would be when the rankings came out) and Mickelson once again tasted bitter defeat left to think about what might have been.
But despite Lefty’s pain, this was a great moment for golf. Sure Tiger is back, but so are a bunch of extremely talented players unwilling to back down. Mickelson might have lost but he gave Tiger everything he could handle right down to the final chip. Vijay Singh was struggling with his putter all week, but still managed a final round 66 for a share of third place. Not content to be left off the headlines, third-ranked Ernie Els won the Dubai Desert Classic Sunday with an eagle on the final hole.
Tiger may or may not be on his way to dominating the PGA Tour, but if he is all the way back he will have to battle the best players in the world to prove it. With half a dozen players playing extremely well right now–players like Retief Goosen or David Toms are in the mix as well–the PGA is on the brink of a remarkable season. As the Masters approaches golf fans are anticipating duels like the one they watched Sunday playing out on the biggest stages of all–the Majors. This could be a golden year and I for one can’t wait.
–Kevin Holtsberry is a freelance writer in Ohio.