Tiger Woods issued a significant statement of intent with his 19-under par, two shot victory at the World Golf Championship in Doral last week, and there was enough about this one to suggest it could prove the start of something greater than the false dawns he has encountered since his return to the game in 2010.
Of all the formidable statistics accompanying his most dominant win since his slide from greatness began (100 putts, beating his personal best for fewest putts in a PGA tournament, or the 27 birdies that were one shy of his most ever in one week, to name but a few), the most startling was this: that for the bulk of the 36 holes played over the weekend, Woods led a star-studded field filled with competitors who have supposedly narrowed the gap to him by either three or four shots. Indeed, were it not for a conservative, pragmatic approach that resulted in a bogey on his final hole, he would have ended the tournament three shots ahead of next best-placed Steve Stricker. Add that to the fact that the Blue Monster Course played nice and true over the four days, offering the finest shot-makers in golf every opportunity to attack the pins, go for birdies and locate their best golf, and the size of Woods’s gap to the rest becomes even more frightening.
During last year’s Wimbledon final Roger Federer struggled with the windy conditions that disrupted his rhythm and timing in the early part of the match, but once the roof had been closed due to rain and external factors had been blotted out, the match became a much purer test of shot-making where each competitor’s innate skill with racket and ball made all the difference. It was then, in those equalising conditions that took away the influence of the elements on the ball’s flight and negated much of the effect the surface had on the ball’s speed, that the gap between Federer and Andy Murray (representing the rest of tennis) in creative shot-making became clear. He destroyed Murray over the remainder of that match in as artistic and breath-taking a way as is possible to imagine, and went on to add another Wimbledon title to his collection.
In many ways the Blue Monster Course was golf’s equivalent of the closed Wimbledon Centre Court that day, offering as fair a test of true ability as possible on a layout un-tampered by overweening weather or the recent trend to stifle golfers by leaving hyperbolically deep rough and deepening and widening bunkers to cavernous levels. It instead sought to recognise the greatest talents in the game by offering a layout that balanced difficulty against the need to allow them room to realise their stunning ability to sink monster putts and put the ball to within an inch of the hole from their approach shots. This encouraged the cream to rise to the top and slug it out with each other, and all the names regarded as the purest talents in golf duly appeared on the leaderboard: Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott finished at 14- under par while McIlroy made a recovery once his confidence had stabilised to finish 10- under par.
In light of these conditions, Woods’s statistical domination of the field entails an altogether more awe-inspiring message: that, on a course as likely as any to offer a true and reliable comparison of where the best golfers in the world stand relative to each other in terms of ability and form, he is three shots better than anyone else. In a game that has supposedly risen in quality since his fall from the top, this was a stunning re-affirmation of the limitless extent of his abilities and consummation of mental and technical excellence into perhaps the most fearsome competitor of our times. Whether he can sustain this run of form throughout the season or, more importantly, replicate it in the Major tournaments in which he has fallen short in recent years, must still be regarded as an unknown. However, the overwhelmingly convincing nature of this victory will have done nothing to dampen the rising belief that he is re-discovering his sporting essence once more, and emerging stronger and greater from his Phoenix-like reconstruction with Sean Foley – as well as lending an ominous degree of weight to his words that he “doesn’t want it to be as good as it was before – I want it to be better.”