Commentary

Woods back in full force after victory

Originally Published: June 7, 2009
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

DUBLIN, Ohio -- While trying to deal with the emotion and commotion of playing with the best player in the game, a thought occurred to Michael Letzig as he fought to keep from getting swallowed in the hysteria Sunday at Muirfield Village Golf Club.

Why did anybody ever think something was wrong with Tiger Woods?

Letzig, a second-year PGA Tour pro, had the best time anyone ever had shooting 75 and blowing a wad of cash. He played alongside Woods in the final round of the Memorial Tournament, and had a front-row seat to an amazing show, even for a guy who has now won 67 times on the PGA Tour.

He saw Woods hit all 14 fairways, something the world's No. 1 player had not done in six years and now has accomplished just six times in his PGA Tour career. He saw Woods hit 13 of 18 greens. He watched him somehow gouge a flop shot out of the deep rough that trundled into the hole for an eagle.

And then he watched Woods hit approach shots stiff at the 17th and 18th holes that set up birdies to cap a final-round 65 and a 1-stroke victory over Jim Furyk.

"I tried not to watch him, but it's hard not to," said Letzig, who began the day tied with Woods, 4 shots back, and ended up tied for 14th. "Some of the shots are just unreal. ... He's a lot better than everybody else. It's tough because it's golf to us. The way he plays, the way he hits his irons ... it's unreal."

Woods made seven birdies, an eagle and two bogeys and won for the second time this year since coming back from knee surgery.

But what made this victory so satisfying to Woods was the way he played all week -- despite a second-round 74, his highest score in nearly two years. Woods hit 49 of 56 fairways, matching his best performance ever, which came at the 1998 Masters. For the first time since 2003 at Bay Hill, he hit every fairway in a round.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesTiger Woods hit 49 out of 56 fairways this week at the Memorial. His 87.5 percent of fairways hit ranked second in the field.

You can quibble about more generous fairways, but the fact is Woods had never hit it so straight here or anywhere. And on Sunday, he gave himself perfect angles to the pin, his only bogeys coming at par-3s where he misjudged the wind.

"It was just a matter of time," Woods said. "It came together this week."

Although Woods has said he was fully prepared to return in February at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, in truth he was unable to practice as much as he would have liked. It wasn't until the Masters that he hit balls after a round. It wasn't until the Quail Hollow Championship last month that he did so after even two of the rounds.

"My practice sessions started getting longer at home," he said. "Hit more balls, play more golf, all these things. People don't realize you need to do that. You need to have that ability. You can't just think about your swing and how to be great the next day. I needed to do the reps and do some good practice sessions the past couple of weeks.

"I knew I could do this. It's just a matter of give me a little bit of time. I just came off a pretty extended break, and I was close to winning, but the game wasn't quite there when I really needed it on Sunday. I rectified that."

After winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March -- in just his third start back -- Woods had periods of difficulty driving the ball at the Masters, Quail Hollow and the Players Championship, and yet finished sixth, fourth and eighth in those events.

But his indifferent play at all three of those tournaments left him vulnerable to the critics. His game was second-guessed so much that some wondered if his coach, Hank Haney, might have more time to spend with Charles Barkley on their reality TV show. Hearing all the criticism made Haney cringe.

"I heard people on TV say he was lost," said Haney, who arrived for the final round Sunday. "How can anybody say he's lost? It makes no sense. I thought he deserved an opportunity to get himself back feeling good. It was a pretty serious injury [ACL reconstruction] for an athlete. And then you consider how long he was out of competition. This was a huge confidence boost for him."

Other players heard the criticism, too. Letzig couldn't believe it.

"Everybody was saying how bad he drives it," Letzig said. "From what I saw, he drives it perfect."

"I wish you'd all quit [ticking] him off," said Furyk, laughing, after a final-hole birdie left him 1 shot short of Woods. "Wish you'd quit chapping him so much and make him come back and keep proving stuff. Tiger Woods is always Tiger Woods. He can't be 100 percent every week, but I'm sure he answered a lot of questions today."

If you're keeping track, that's two victories in seven starts this year for Woods, who has been among the top 10 in all six of his stroke-play tournaments. He now trails tournament host Jack Nicklaus by six for second place on the all-time PGA Tour victory list.

And, of course, he'll try to put a dent in another hallowed Nicklaus mark, the game's gold standard of 18 major championship victories, when the U.S. Open commences on June 18. Woods won his 14th major in epic fashion a year ago at Torrey Pines, where he played on one leg.

All of that is fixed now, and it appears his game has come around, too.

Woods and Haney were headed to Long Island on Sunday night and were scheduled to get a good look Monday at the Bethpage Black course where Woods won his second U.S. Open in 2002. Then it's back to Orlando, Fla., to prepare more for a tournament at which he will now be an even bigger favorite.

"I suspect that No. 15 will come to Tiger Woods in about two weeks," Nicklaus told the crowd at Sunday evening's awards ceremony. "If he drives the ball this way and plays this way I'm sure it will. If it not, it would surprise me greatly."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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