AKRON, Ohio – The only question I have is, Why hasn’t this place been renamed Tigerstone?
Tiger Woods has won eight times in elite, limited-size tournaments here at Firestone Country Club. He owns this place as much as any golfer can own a course.
Eight victories? No other modern golfer is associated with one course the way Woods is with Firestone. Unless it’s Woods at Bay Hill (also eight victories) or Woods at Torrey Pines (eight victories, including a U.S. Open; nine counting a Junior World).
“Tiger has won here as many times as I’ve won anywhere in my career,” Justin Thomas marveled Wednesday at Firestone before the WGC Bridgestone Invitational starts today (tee times). “I’m surprised he hasn’t mentioned that to me yet.”
Rest assured, he will. So why stop at renaming Firestone? Woods has five W’s in the Memorial Tournament near Columbus. This state could be renamed after him, now that LeBron James has deserted it again. Woods-hio? O’Tiger? Ah, that one’s going to need work. Tell the marketing department.
It would be a mistake to assume that Woods is going to win this week – it would be his first victory anywhere since Firestone No. 8 in 2013 – just because of his track record. Maybe the old Woods simply could toss his ball and glove on the first tee and reach for the trophy. The new Woods is 42 and mainly isn’t the old Woods.
It also would be a mistake to assume that Woods can’t win this week. His game has been a progression all year – a work in progress, an evolution. His confidence has grown as his faulty back and battered body has withstood the wear and tear of PGA Tour golf, a surprise to him as much as it has been a surprise to us.
He talked Wednesday about all the unknowns with which he has dealt this year. Could he handle hitting hard shots out of thick rough? Could he find a slightly different way to swing that still would be repetitive, protect his back and also allow for long-distance clubhead speed? He could.
“I’ve changed shafts, I don’t know how many times, throughout the year, because my swing has changed and my speed has changed,” Woods said. “So many things have evolved that I’ve just had to wing it. As soon as things settle down – next year will be a lot better.”
Woods convinced me that he had enough game to win again after his close calls at the Valspar Championship and the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March. Any lingering doubt was erased two weeks ago at Carnoustie in the British Open when he surged into the lead through 10 holes in the final round, a brief electric moment that ended when he surged out of the lead with a double and a bogey on the next two holes. He could have won. No doubt Woods thinks he should have won. The big difference on the weekend at Carnoustie was that Woods began holing putts with confidence instead of looking baffled at too many near-misses inside 10 feet.
The putter is one of two clubs by which the change from the old Woods to the new Woods is most evident, driver being the other.
Woods was the best putter in the game. For a decade or more, he might have been the best putter ever. That’s no exaggeration.
The list of players who putted well into their 40s is a short one. Many Tour players burn out those young man’s nerves by 35.
Woods is still evolving as a putter in this second golfing life he has been granted after a fourth back surgery. He shows flashes of the old Tiger – Carnoustie on the weekend, and that crazy must-make 40-footer he holed on the 71st hole at Valspar. That was vintage. He used to be automatic inside 8 feet. Not so far.
Woods ranks 56th in strokes gained putting, probably the best way to measure putting. Inside 10 feet, he is 141st in PGA Tour putting stats, 139th from 10 to 15 feet and, curiously, second from 15 to 20 feet. I’m not sure how much those last two mean. A more telling stat is proximity to the hole after the first putt: 2 feet 4 inches, which ranks 112th. That’s not even middle of the pack for the former greatest putter ever.
Tournament golf always has been a putting contest, to some extent. With 330-yard drives becoming common, the game has become more of a putting contest than ever. His work on the greens may be the biggest uphill slog Woods faces as he tries to score career victory No. 80.
The driver probably isn’t as big of an issue. Woods won a majority of his major championships while his driver was more of a liability than the weapon it was early in his career, when he came out on Tour and hit it 30 yards past everyone.
Woods ranks 119th in strokes gained off the tee – not awful. He is 166th in fairways hit – not good.
Here’s a more telling stat: There’s a category titled distance from edge of fairway – in other words, who misses fairways by the least (or most). Woods ranks 193rd. He’s near the head of the class among those who miss fairways by the biggest margins.
That’s not a recipe for success at Firestone, with thick rough and tree-lined fairways. Yet, he has won eight times here.
At his best, Woods was either No. 1 or top five in just about every category of proximity to the pin on approach shots. It was easy to see why he dominated golf. In his prime, he dominated the stats. He was longer than any other player, hit it closer to the pin more often than anyone, was the best putter and the best scrambler.
He is third on Tour in strokes gained approaching the green, but 96th in greens hit in regulation. The only proximity category in which he ranks among the top 12 is from iron shots out of the rough at 150-175 yards. He’s still good with the irons but, so far, not great.
All those stats are mere guidelines. They show where Woods has been. They’re not necessarily predictive. When Woods came back after that long absence from golf, I figured he would need a full year on Tour to see how good he could be again.
If this week is the week, it wouldn’t be a surprise. Rory McIlroy was asked if he has his own equivalent of what Firestone has been for Woods.
“I think it is horses for courses,” McIlroy said. “Tiger has proved that here, with Bay Hill, with Torrey Pines, with – well, actually, anywhere.”
Firestone is in the position of the undercard again because next week is a bigger attraction: the PGA Championship at Bellerive in St. Louis and another shot for Woods at Major No. 15 and the chance to reignite his chase for history.
It’s been a long 10 years since Woods won his last major. Now, he is starting to make it very interesting again.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle