By Ewan Murray/The Guardian
There is a recurring danger of sporting dreams blurring reality. The hype around Tiger Woods was once justified but the reality of recent months applies context often missing in the giddy analysis. Woods has performed brilliantly simply to be competitive again after physical trouble so acute he struggled to sit down for dinner. But there, for now, the story ends.
Woods’ latest outing at the Players Championship had him finish seven – almost two shots per round – adrift of the winner Webb Simpson. The 42-year-old tied 55th the previous weekend in Charlotte, 32nd at the Masters and trailed the victorious Rory McIlroy by eight at the conclusion of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Woods’ share of second at the Valspar Championship in early March was impressive but the fact Paul Casey could swat him aside on the Sunday means we are in danger of being seduced by a fairytale.
And still, excitement flows. “It is incredibly close,” the former world No 1 David Duval said. “We’ve all questioned what is the top for him in this comeback. What can his body do? What can his new golf game do?”
The Golf Channel analyst added: “Having had the opportunity to speak to him about it, we were all in a hurry to judge what was going on. I sat up here and said: ‘Let’s give him the starts, let’s give him the summer, let’s give him the year, let’s see if he can gain some of the freedom he needs.’
“Well, it looked to me this week that he regained that freedom. I watched the body pass the club through the downswing, watched him maintain his spine angle through that process. He hit some monster tee shots, incredible iron shots and the freedom with which he did that we just hadn’t seen.
“I still want to give him more events but what I saw this weekend makes me excited it could be incredibly close and that must make him excited. I hope he plays sooner rather than later. I hope he doesn’t go home and just hit golf balls. I want to see him play rounds under tournament conditions and expose himself exactly like he did this weekend. Because he did that and he performed.”
To an extent, that is. From the position of making the Sawgrass cut by a stroke, Woods raced to eight under par after 12 third?round holes. He was firmly in the tournament mix. From there he played a gettable closing stretch in plus one. In the final round another fast start – he was six under on the 13th tee – was offset by the playing of holes 14 to 18 in three over. It seems reasonable to infer that, when Woods tries to press for victory – and he has to, having not been the man to catch at any event on this comeback – shortcomings appear. The same happened at the Arnold Palmer, where Woods pulled a tee shot into a back garden, three holes from home.
“He’ll win sometime soon enough,” said Jordan Spieth, who partnered Woods on Sunday. “He’s certainly playing well enough to do so. His game, if I compare it to other guys I’m playing with day to day who are winning tournaments, is right up there.”
Woods begins this week having leapt to 80th in the world rankings, with a new name on top. Justin Thomas’ out-performing of Dustin Johnson at the Players means the US PGA champion is the world No 1 for the first time.
“It’s not something where I just want to do it once,” Thomas said. “I want to do it for a really long time. I want to have it for a really long time because that means I’m playing better than everybody else for an extended period.”
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