His irons are sublime, his driver for the most part long and straight.
If we’ve learned anything from his latest comeback, Tiger Woods can still putt a bit, too.
A decade ago, that would have made him the overwhelming pick to win the U.S. Open. Heck, a decade ago he won the U.S. Open basically on one leg for what, incredibly enough, was his last major championship win.
But as Woods docked his yacht near Shinnecock Hills this week, he was still a golfing enigma of sorts. His scores are decent, if not spectacular, but he’s yet to win and has only been in serious contention once in nine tournaments this year.
Is the real Tiger finally back?
The answer to that question may be that no one has an answer to that question. And that might include Woods himself, who must still have trouble reminding himself he’s only the No. 80 player in the world.
Everything looks good. Everything — including the massive crowds that follow him everywhere — has the feel of the old Tiger. Someone who saw Woods practicing at Shinnecock last month described his ball striking as “mouthwatering,” and Woods himself says he’s hitting it as well as he can remember.
Something, though, is missing. So far, this isn’t the Tiger of old in the most important way imaginable for the greatest player of his time — he isn’t winning.
It might be age — Woods is in great shape for 42, but the noticeably thinning hair gives away the fact he’s been playing professional golf for the better part of a quarter century, and the nerves might not be what they once were. It might be something psychological, though Woods keeps his inner thoughts so close that no one really knows what goes on inside his head.
It might be that players don’t lie down in front of him anymore, or that many are too young to even understand just what Tigermania once was.
Or it might just be — and this, Tiger fans can only hope for — that this truly is a process and the best may yet be to come this week as an Open as important for his career as any since his win in 2008 at Torrey Pines unfolds on Long Island.
Woods himself gives away few clues to suggest what might unfold at Shinnecock. In his mind he’s always just a few putts away from a great round, or one great round away from winning.
“I felt good on basically every facet of the game, and it’s weird — not to really mishit a shot today and only shoot 3-under par is just weird, because I played much better than that,” Woods said at the Players Championship.
“I’ve hit it good enough to be right up next to that lead. If I just putt normal, I’m right there,” Woods said at Wells Fargo, where he never cracked the top 30 in four days.
Don’t bother calling in the shrinks, because Woods has always been somewhat in denial when parts of his magical game desert him. It’s what helps fuel him for the next day, and gets him up for the next challenge.