Tiger's good is better than anyone else's

August, 2, 2009
08/02/09
7:17
PM ET

You can learn a lot about a person by bringing up Tiger Woods' latest triumph at the water cooler Monday morning.

The optimist will contend Woods is back and better than ever, that the missed cut two weeks ago at the British Open was an exception to his rule over the world of professional golf. He will discuss that opening stretch of holes at the Buick Open on Friday morning, one of the most torrid displays in Woods' storied career. He'll point out that the two most important aspects of Woods' game -- the swing and the putting stroke -- both were firing on all cylinders at Warwick Hills, as he finished 13th or better in both greens in regulation and putts per round.

This same guy will call the 14-time major winner a prohibitive favorite to earn No. 15 at the PGA Championship in two weeks, justifying his position with potent statistical evidence: Woods has prevailed in four of 11 starts this season, while leading the PGA Tour money list and ranking first in top-10 finishes, scoring averages and the telling all-around category.

The pessimist, on the other hand, will maintain that a victory over a second-tier field hardly merits superlatives, that the likes of Roland Thatcher and Michael Letzig weren't exactly causing a bout of nerves for Woods. He will proffer a reminder that Friday's early rally came only after another disappointing opening round that had Woods on the cusp of missing two cuts in a row for the first time in his professional career. He'll further sound the alarm by recalling that Woods often replicated the role of a runway worker while on the tee this weekend, seemingly pointing left or right after every drive while not-so-subtly cursing himself under his breath.

Mr. Glass Half-Empty will emphasize the fact that Woods is hardly a lock to win at Hazeltine. After all, he won two weeks before each of the year's previous three majors and has a goose egg to show for it. You want to talk stats? He'll declare that the champion in Chaska, Minn., will be the man who is able to both drive it a long way on the record-setting 7,674-yard course and shape his shots around the various doglegs; then he'll stress that Woods has dipped outside the top 30 in driving distance and, as usual, is much further back when it comes to accuracy.

It's a strange dichotomy, these differing views on the current state of Woods' game. You know what, though? They're both right.

Me? I'm a realist, which means I've got one foot in each camp. Here's the simple truth: Woods' 69th career PGA Tour victory hardly will go down as one of the most dominating or thrilling or entertaining on his résumé. It shouldn't serve as some symbolic return to form -- after all, how "out of form" can a player be who had already won 30 percent of his starts entering this week? -- but it doesn't necessarily translate into certain victory at the PGA or this week's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, either.

Unless he leads Saturday night, that is. This win further enforced Woods' claim as the greatest closer in the history of the game, as he is now 36-1 when holding the outright 54-hole lead at a PGA Tour event and 47-3 when having at least a share of that lead. Again, no news here.

If we learned anything about Woods this week, it's that he can return from a missed cut to clinch victory. Of the five previous times in his 13-year career that Woods has pulled what he affectionately calls an "MC Hammer," he followed with a pair of second-place finishes and two thirds, but this is the first time he's reached the winner's circle in such a situation.

All of which leads to something else Woods proved again this week. One of the many characteristics that separate the world's No. 1-ranked player from his competition is the fact that others' success is often cyclical, dependent on recent results and likely a precursor to upcoming events. For Woods, though, each tournament appearance seems to be a singular occurrence, his success never predicated upon recent finishes, his future never reliant on current form.

Have other players missed a cut only to win in their next appearance? Absolutely. It never works in the way it did for Woods, though. His worst golf -- during the second round at Turnberry, Woods played a six-hole stretch in 7-over-par for the first time in his career -- left him a single shot shy of making the cut. His best golf -- Woods was 7-under-par through seven holes in that opening stretch during Round 2 of the Buick -- is purely mercurial. And his average golf -- he made 15 pars in the final round and birdied only one non-par-5 -- is enough to ensure a Sunday coronation.

Let the optimists and pessimists argue semantics at the water cooler. The one thing I'll take from Tiger Woods' latest victory more than anything else is this notion, which often has been repeated throughout his career: His great might be otherworldly, but his good is still better than everyone else, too.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.
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