PGA won't be measuring stick for Tiger

CHASKA, Minn. -- The numbers are staggering, made even more so with another victory Sunday at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

But Tiger Woods' true measure of success comes at the major championships, the place where keeping score matters the most to him.

This week's PGA Championship at Hazeltine National offers the last opportunity for Woods to snag a major this year and run his total to 15. His last major victory came at the 2008 U.S. Open, where he limped around on a bad leg and then had knee surgery a week later.

Despite victories heading into each of the three previous majors this year, Woods left each disappointed.

But if he fails this week, can he really call a five-victory season -- with the chance for more wins -- disappointing?

"No, it's been a success to come back and play again," said Woods, who quickly began his preparations for the PGA on Monday at Hazeltine after arriving Sunday night following his victory in Ohio.

"To come back and play and play as consistently as I've played this year considering how I felt at the very beginning of the year … I didn't know. And from what I was playing through last year during the Open, I thought that was similar to how I was going to be feeling coming back this year. I didn't know.

"All that was an unknown starting out the year, and how long would it take for me to get my game back after taking such a long time away from it and having some big adjustments that I had to make because I've never had a leg feel this way."

This is Woods' 13th full season as a pro, and in only three years -- 1998, 2003 and 2004 -- has he failed to win a major championship.

When you put it in perspective, it is almost ridiculous to talk in such terms. Woods has 14 majors and no other active player has more than three. Phil Mickelson has not won a major since 2006, Vijay Singh not since 2004, Ernie Els not since 2002. But if Woods comes up empty, it's supposed to be a disappointment.

Maybe in any other year.

But as Woods said, there were so many unknowns when he returned from reconstructive knee surgery in February. He had been off for eight months and didn't start hitting full shots until January.

And yet, he won his third start back at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and has now won five times this year to lead both the PGA Tour money list and the FedEx Cup standings. No other player has won more than two tournaments. And unless Masters winner Angel Cabrera, U.S. Open winner Lucas Glover or British Open winner Stewart Cink claims the PGA -- and maybe not even then -- Woods would be a lock for PGA Tour player of the year.

"This year I think just being able to come back and play and be successful again has been a tremendous step in the right direction," Woods said. "If I would have been here -- if you would have asked me at the beginning of the year before I even played whether I'd have [five] wins by now, I would -- I couldn't see it, because walking 18 holes was going to be a task.

"Looking back on it now, playing the Match Play [in February], where I was physically then and where I'm at now is just night and day. It was hard to kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel, especially when I'm just starting back. To win, and not only win but be as consistent as I've been the entire year coming back, that's one of the things I'm probably the most proud of."

The victory Sunday was Woods' 13th in his past 23 starts, his 16th WGC title in 30 attempts and his 70th career PGA Tour win -- three behind Jack Nicklaus' 73 and 12 behind Sam Sneed's 82. He has won five of his 12 starts this year.

The majors, however, have been a source of frustration. Slow starts at the Masters and U.S. Open left him on just the fringe of contention heading into the final round of the two tournaments, where he rallied to finish in a tie for sixth, 4 strokes back of the winner at both.

Then Woods surprisingly missed the cut at the British Open, where he played a six-hole stretch in 7 over par during the second round. He missed playing the weekend by 1 stroke, just the second time as a pro that he failed to make the 36-hole cut in a major.

Woods heads into Thursday's first round with playing partners Padraig Harrington and Rich Beem having won his past two starts. He also finished second to Beem at Hazeltine in the 2002 PGA.

That year, Woods had won the first two major championships, saw his chances at a Grand Slam derailed in a gale at the British Open, then came back to birdie the final four holes at Hazeltine to finish a shot short of Beem.

Woods didn't win another major until the 2005 Masters, a 10-major winless streak. At the time, he was working on swing changes with instructor Hank Haney, and it is difficult to argue with the results. Including his victory at the 2006 British Open, Woods has now won 22 of 40 tournaments on the PGA Tour, including four majors.

He no doubt wants to add to that total this week. The last time he was in this position was two years ago at Southern Hills, where he won the PGA after winning the week prior at the Bridgestone.

"The thing is you just have to go out there and play," Woods said. "The major championships are set up so that you can't … be very aggressive and go out there and try and make birdies on every hole like you can at most tour events. You have to plod your way along and get them when you can. Certain majors are easier than others, but overall they're still major championships, and they're set up to do it that way."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.