Not surprisingly, Tiger Woods isn’t a fan of the “Are you back?” question.
In the face of such inquires two years ago, after winning the Chevron Challenge for his first victory in two years, Woods quoted LL Cool J: “Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years,” the golfer said.
Q: ...do you understand why people are always looking to see if you are back, and what do you say to them?
TIGER WOODS: Never left.
The real answer to the “back” question is that, in the remaining years of his career, Tiger Woods will not have a continuous stretch of dominance like the one he had in 2000-2001. In this sense, then, Tiger will never be “back” to his previous best form; he will never win four consecutive majors or raise trophies at the rate he did during that period.
Woods' diminished confidence, compromised play on the weekend in significant tournaments and waning intimidation factor, as well as the surge in young players and international competitors capable of winning majors, makes such a stretch of play impossible.
Additionally, Woods would have to dominate scoring average, scrambling, strokes gained-putting and greens in regulation as he did during previous stretches of superlative play in order to be back to his best form.
Even giving the widest possible berth to the rebuilding of his swing and confidence under Sean Foley, the fact is that the duo have been working together for more than two years. If a real return to form were going to happen, it’s likely that it already would have in a way similar to what happened under Butch Harmon and Hank Haney.
For example, in his second full season under Haney, Woods' statistics in almost every significant statistical category were vastly better compared to his performance in his second full season working with Sean Foley:
|Greens in Regulation||69.9||63.9|
Beyond any of this, though, what do we really mean when we say Tiger is/isn’t back? An operating definition of Tiger Woods' “backness” might be that he is playing at a level that indicates he is likely to win at least one major and at least five other events.
Of course, there is the contention that Tiger will not be “back” until he is playing the way he did in 2000. In that historic year, Woods won nine PGA Tour events, including three consecutive majors.
There seems to be, too, the feeling that Tiger will not have returned to his essential “Tiger-hood” until he is playing at a level commensurate with his play from 2005 to 2009, when he won 31 times (including six majors) on the PGA Tour.
The expectations of the golfing media and Woods' fans are quite high. Certainly, when he doesn’t reach the aforementioned levels, there is a level of disappointment; murmurings of “slump” abound. Such was the case in 2003-2004, when Woods was a victor in only six tournaments, none of them majors.
Regardless of Woods’ own contentions, there is little merit to the argument that he “never left.”
Tiger did physically “leave” as a result of the scandal. From late 2009 until the Masters in 2010, he was absent from the Tour.
He “left” the PGA Tour winner’s circle, as well, after the 2009 BMW Championship and didn’t prevail again on Tour until the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2012.
Woods has also been absent from the list of major champions since the 2008 U.S. Open.
In these three significant ways, then, Woods certainly “left.” Similarly, any discussion of a legitimate return to form over the long term begins with a major victory.
While it is true that Tiger played well in the final portion of 2012 (he didn't finish outside the top 10 in any of the end-of-season tournaments) and was convincing in his win at the Farmers Insurance Open, it’s categorically impossible for him to have made a full return to form at this point.
Consider Woods’ performance during his two most prolific stretches on tour:
|Years||PGA Tour Wins||Majors||Average Wins||Average Majors|
I do not believe he will ever again consistently win an average of more than six tournaments each year on the PGA Tour. Nor will he average more than one major victory per year.
Woods has had a feast-or-famine start to the 2013 golf season: one missed cut, one victory. It’s difficult to draw any far-reaching conclusions from such oppositional performances.
However, any talk of “the return of Tiger Woods” must be tempered with a measure of the statistical reality. Since 2009, Woods has only three PGA Tour victories, none of them majors. Additionally, all of the wins came at courses where he’s won multiple times in the past.
Assuming the “Woods water level,” so to speak, will never rise as high as it did in the aforementioned period, it’s fitting to ask what the 14-time major winner should be expected to do in his 17th year on the PGA Tour.
It’s fair to expect Woods to win at the rate he did in his first four years on tour. That is, an average of roughly four (3.75) wins per year, with a major every other year.
A Tiger Woods capable of accomplishing more than this, in 2013 or beyond, is unlikely.
*all statistics from PGATOUR.com and the PGA Tour Media Guide