Last Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the new Tiger played like the old one. Then came the finale. Woods and Phil Mickelson, side by side in the cool seaside gray at Pebble Beach. It had the feel of a British Open Sunday, a U.S. Open Sunday, a televised grudge match. It looked like old times. Phil shot a flawless 64 and won, while Tiger's play was downright messy. After all the health issues Mickelson and his family have dealt with lately, you wanted to give the guy a hug. It was a huge day for Phil. And for Tiger too.
If Saturday on the PGA Tour is Moving Day, Sunday is Doubt Day, when a golfer's frailties are on cruel display. On Sunday, when he needed to go low to win his first Tour event in 29 months, Woods shot 75. His problems now are solely golf-related. He doesn't need lawyers to sift through them.
It felt like a major last week, with Tiger and Phil dominating the CBS coverage, while Phil hogged the commercial breaks. (Woods did not appear in a single spot.) But it wasn't a major. It was the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, a glorious old Tour stop, but a Tour stop nonetheless. There are scores of them in a season that seems to go on forever. The truth, Tiger Woods would tell you—if you were, say, Tony Romo, his amateur partner at Pebble—is that the real season is short and intense. The Masters in April, the U.S. Open in June, the British in July, the PGA Championship in August. That's it.
Tiger measures his standing in the game by what he does in the four majors. Now more than ever, all his other events are dressed-up time trials. Of course he wanted Clint Eastwood to hand him the winner's crystal on Sunday. It surely chafed him to have to say over and over to Phil some variant of "good one." But Tiger has a map to Augusta in his mind. Pebble was on it, and now his extended spring training continues. He has the Match Play next week in the Arizona desert, and Doral and Bay Hill in Florida in March. He'll be playing to win, for sure. One of his credos is that winning begets winning. But he also believes in the power of baby steps, and he took important ones last week. When he leaves an event without a W but with a hard-earned to-do list, he can live with that. Note to self: Work on three-wood cut shot. On Sunday night Mickelson said of Woods, "He's really close." Phil wasn't blowing smoke. "All it takes is one week." A victory leading up to the Masters would be great for Tiger. But he doesn't need one to collect a fifth green jacket.
The big question in golf is not whether Tiger will win again. He will. The Big Watch for Tiger is how many majors will he win before he's through? It's the same thing golfheads have been asking for 15 years, except now it's being asked with more urgency, because Tiger is a 36-year-old with high mileage.
And yet ... Tiger seems younger now than he has in years. Younger than he did a year ago (swing issues) or in 2010 (marital issues) or in 2009 or '08 (health issues). Welcome back to 2007, Tiger. Buy yourself some Apple stock.
Phil is 41, with four major titles, and his place in the game is secure. He's going into the Hall of Fame in May, and no matter what he does over, say, the next five years he's going down as one of the game's elites. He's not in the penthouse with Jack Nicklaus and Woods. Or one level down with Arnold Palmer and Ben Hogan. But he's in a cozy, paneled den with young Tom Morris and old Billy Casper. He's top 25 for sure. If he doesn't do a thing for the rest of 2012, Mickelson has already had a wonderful year. Woods is the one whose standing in the game is unsettled. You may not think that, but he does.
By Tiger's accounting, Nicklaus is the greatest golfer ever for the simple reason that he has won the most majors. "Jack is the greatest golfer who has ever played the game," Woods said last week. "His 18 majors is the goal that every professional aspires to." There are other benchmarks, like Sam Snead's 82 Tour victories, but Woods grew up on the legend of Nicklaus, the golfer and the man, and Woods likes the neatness of the straight count to 18. He has been stuck at 14 since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, where he won in overtime on one leg.
In the 2009 majors, Woods tied for sixth at the Masters and again at the U.S. Open, missed the cut at the British Open and was chased down by Y.E. Yang at the PGA Championship. Then came Thanksgiving, the National Enquirer's spy work and everything else. Since then, Tiger has paid a $164 traffic citation, gone through a divorce, changed caddies and management companies, moved from central to coastal Florida, won an event with an 18-man field, left his swing coach, author Hank Haney, and started up with another, hip-hop enthusiast Sean Foley.
Foley and Woods have a plan to get him unstuck from 14, and Augusta represents Tiger's best chance. He won his fourth Masters in 2005, and in the six playings since has never finished worse than sixth. You can easily close your eyes and imagine Charl Schwartzel, last year's winner, slipping a green jacket over Tiger's shoulders in the dusk light of Easter Sunday.