Watch out Rory – Tiger’s getting his bite back
McIlroy’s No 1 status could be in danger with Woods building up a head of steam for Major explosion
DON'T look now Rory but you've got a real rival for world No 1. Tiger Woods cannot turn the clock back, but the way he wrapped up his eighth career victory on the South Course at Torrey Pines yesterday – at the Farmers Insurance Open – suggests that the 37-year-old is ready, willing and able to start winning Major championships once again.
The last time Tiger finished out a tournament on Monday at Torrey Pines, he beat Rocco Mediate over 19 holes for the 2008 US Open, the most recent of his 14 Major titles.
Woods needed reconstructive surgery on his left knee and treatment to two stress fractures to his lower legs immediately after that performance.
Tiger then surrendered his aura of invincibility as he bowed to YE Yang on Sunday at the 2009 US PGA, before losing his reputation and his marriage in a lurid sex scandal which blew up three months later.
The Tiger that McIlroy encountered on his thrilling 20-month journey to two Major titles and the pinnacle of world golf was but a shadow of the great champion he revered as a boy. Yet, physically and mentally, Tiger is feeble no more.
Some exquisite shot-making and sure putting helped clinch his 75th PGA Tour win, edging Woods one ahead of Jack Nicklaus and within seven of Sam Snead in the all-time charts.
When needed, Tiger displayed phenomenal power, notably in exploding his ball out of deep rough to the right of 18 in Sunday's fog-delayed third round. He also carved an astonishing slice out of the long grass and under the branches of a nearby tree to within 40 feet of the green at four, after he had threatened to go walkabout off the tee in the early stages of his fourth round that evening – a problem that persisted into yesterday's final session.
Once in the deep rough, however, Tiger underscored his recovery from the physical ailments that prompted his most recent swing revamp with Sean Foley, while around and on the greens he showed the confidence and serenity that once again underpins his wedge play and short game.
As darkness fell on Sunday, Woods had skated six clear of his closest rivals, Brandt Snedeker and Nick Watney, through seven holes of his fourth round, giving ever greater resonance to words uttered earlier by intuitive TV pundit David Feherty.
"He reminds me of someone I used to know," Feherty had said as Woods made a brilliantly facile birdie at the par five 13th in mid-afternoon. "There's a calmness about him we once were used to seeing."
Tiger donned red for his final 11 holes at this fog-delayed tournament as he wrapped up his fifth win in the past 14 months.
All were achieved at places Woods probably could play blindfolded – Sherwood Country Club, where he took the 2011 Chevron World Challenge; Bay Hill, where last March he won the Arnie Palmer; Muirfield Village, where he took the honours in June's Memorial; and Congressional, where he was host with the most at July's AT&T National.
Tiger had already won the Farmers six times and the US Open once on the South Course, it's fair to ask: is there any course he knows better than Torrey Pines?
There probably is: Augusta National, venue for the US Masters.
Woods is unlikely to ever intimidate opponents the way he once did, but if he dons that Green Jacket for a fifth time in April, don't bet against him beating the record haul of 18 Major titles won by Nicklaus.
As McIlroy comes to terms with his new Nike clubs in the coming months, one suspects he may also have to familiarise himself with a Tiger he's not played before.