Beware of Tiger – he’s back to his best

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Tiger_swing AP Tiger Woods hits from the third tee during the third round of the Cadillac Championship.

London – It may have taken five years but, in overpowering the Blue Monster course last week, Tiger Woods completed not only his most impressive victory since all that business following the fire hydrant, he also confirmed he is back to his awesome best.

Blessedly free of injury and able to train properly for the first time since 2008, Woods demoralised his fellow competitors in what used to be a familiar manner to win the WGC-Cadillac Championship. Two irrelevant bogeys in his last three holes meant the eventual margin of victory was two shots as the 37-year-old American closed with a 71 to claim his 17th World Golf Championship title.

To put that phenomenal figure in perspective, the next best total amassed by any of his fellow competitors since this elite series of events began in 1999 is two. It was also his 76th victory on the PGA Tour.

The figure that most exercises his mind, of course, is Jack Nicklaus’s total of 18 majors. Now the 14-time major champion will be heading towards Augusta as the prohibitive favourite and, for that, he can thank veteran American Steve Stricker – or blame, if you happen to be one of those hoping to claim a green jacket for themselves.

It was Stricker who noticed a glitch in Woods’s putting stroke. With that resolved, the putting of the former world No 1 was transformed to such an extent he finished top in that category last week with even more ease than he won the event itself.

Woods began yesterday with a four-stroke lead and the comfort of knowing he had never surrendered such a lead with one round to play in a PGA Tour event.

Lending a smidgeon of intrigue was the fact that his nearest challenger was Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell. In winning Woods’s tournament at Thousand Oaks in Los Angeles in 2010 – a non-PGA Tour event – G-Mac bridged exactly that advantage.

He gave his supporters some hope with a birdie at the first to Woods’s par, but then came another of those putts Woods made all week from 15 feet to birdie the second. So it began, another masterclass. If truth be told he was never in serious danger of being caught from that birdie at the second to the end.

He moves within a point of the only man ahead of him in the world rankings, Rory McIlroy. The world No 1 admitted on Saturday he went into this event with his confidence at its lowest ebb.

So imagine how gratifying it must have been to feel it return to such a point that something approaching a cocky jaunt had returned to his stride following a wonderful final-round 65.

True, this seven-under-par effort came on another good day for scoring, with none of the pressure of being in contention and on a course that invited the players to make birdies.

But, given this time last week he was in turmoil after walking out of a pro tournament for the first time in his career, this was progress on a grand scale. On Friday he returned his first score in the sixties this year and here he bettered it by four shots. He had gone from trepidation at the thought of the Masters to eager anticipation during the course of 72 holes.

“Given where my game was and where it is now, I’ve got to look at it as a great week’s work,” he said. “If I’m honest I’d have to say I didn’t see this score at all before this event, so I’m really excited about the next month.”

McIlroy had considered adding another event before the Masters but will now stick to playing just one – the Houston Open in a fortnight – after this morale boost. Following all the angst concerning the 23-year-old, could we be in for an epic duel against Woods at Augusta after all?

Meanwhile, the aforementioned Stricker finished second here at Doral with an $800,000 difference between his cheque and Woods’s $1.4 million – perhaps he will ask his Ryder Cup partner for some dosh for that putting tip – while McDowell finished tied third after a costly double bogey at the last for a 72. Defending champion Justin Rose posted a 68 to move alongside McIlroy and notch another top 10. – Daily Mail



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