Tiger Woods last played a competitive round at Congressional Country Club’s Blue Course nearly three years ago. That cloudy Sunday afternoon was vintage Tiger at the height of his golfing power. The images of that victorious round had become so familiar during the preceding decade.
Woods, wearing a blood-red Nike golf shirt, tapped in on the 72nd hole to win the AT&T National, the tournament he hosts. He raised his arms above his head, putter in his left hand and golf ball in his right. His wife, Elin, clapped while holding their daughter, Sam Alexis. It was the third of his six victories in 2009.
That was a different era in Tiger Woods’ career. The events since have changed the question that defines him as a golfer.
Knee and Achilles tendon injuries, the public dissolution of his marriage and a deterioration of form stopped those from asking when he will break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships. If he can add to his 14 titles drives the narrative. Woods recently has provided flashes of an affirmative answer.
“I’ve won major championships, and I haven’t done it since ‘08,” Woods said Tuesday afternoon, two days before play begins in the AT&T National. “We all go through periods where that doesn’t happen. Some periods are entire careers, but I think I understand how to win major championships. The key is just giving yourself chances.”
And so Woods arrived here Tuesday with some momentum. He is two weeks removed from an uneven performance at the U.S. Open. He shared the lead entering the weekend but finished tied for 21st.
Woods, 36, has his ways of measuring progress in his attempt to recapture greatness. He satisfied at least some despite a forgettable weekend at the Olympic Club.
“I was so close on Saturday to getting a good round out of it, and I didn’t,” he said. “Being a fraction off, certainly it showed up on Saturday and the beginning of Sunday, for sure, but I got it back towards the end of it, played 3-under coming in, and that was something positive.”
His competitors sense the improvement, too. They saw Woods’ comeback victory earlier this month at the Memorial, which followed his win in March at Bay Hill, and their subsequent conclusions seem natural.
“Those are positive, positive steps,” Jim Furyk said. “Being able to do so down the stretch and under pressure, pulling out some of the magic like the old days at Muirfield, obviously he’s back on the right track.”
Woods’ road has been long, though, and the end isn’t necessarily in sight. Injuries kept him out of last year’s U.S. Open at Congressional. In October 2010, he relinquished the top spot in the World Golf Rankings after 281 weeks. He bottomed out at No. 58 but has rebounded to fourth, making him the highest-ranked golfer in this week’s 120-man field.
The journey has included swing changes. Woods grew tired of compensating for his sore left knee. The resulting changes are taking time to consistently master.
“I couldn’t go down that road, and there’s no way I could have had longevity in the game if I would have done that,” he said. “Four knee surgeries later, here we are. I finally have a swing that it doesn’t hurt, and I am still generating power, but it doesn’t hurt anymore.”
Woods is focused this week on improving the short game and putting woes that doomed his U.S. Open. A repeat this weekend of his 2009 performance here would help to serve the golf world notice three weeks before the British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
“He’s quite possibly the best player of all time,” said Nick Watney, the defending AT&T National champion and one of Woods’ playing partners Thursday and Friday. “Two wins for anybody else would be a great year. For him, he’s coming around.”