Tiger Woods has generated a tremendous amount of excitement over the last few weeks and rightly so. If he keeps going like this, Jack Nicklaus' record could be under threat...
Wayne Riley: ‘Tiger Can Still Beat Jack’s Record’
Well, the topic on everyone’s lips is Tiger Woods and whether he’s back. Let me tell you this, folks, the answer is absolutely yes in my book.
How could it not be yes?
It’s been an incredible couple of months. Let’s not forget that in September at the Presidents Cup, he still didn’t know if he’d be able to play professional golf again.
What’s been so impressive is the fact that he’s only played six professional events since then.
A lot of wise and knowledgeable analysts said before the start of the season that an injury-free year, with a sniff of victory in perhaps one tournament, would be considered a genuine success. Well, he’s already finished second and it seems clear that his back isn’t affecting him.
He looks in amazing shape physically, and I’ve watched him up close and personal thrash at balls from deep rough with no signs of pain. I have to say, though, that I don’t like the way he’s going at some shots – he simply doesn’t need to do it and this would be my only note of caution.
In his previous comebacks, you always sensed he wasn’t completely comfortable swinging at full tilt and was always conscious that one bad swing could send him back to the operating table.
Spinal fusion surgery seems to have allayed those fears and he’s swinging so well, not to mention with incredible speed.
I was at Riviera and keeping a close eye on him, and even though he missed the cut there, his swing was sensational. He’s keeping his height so well. He obviously no longer has a coach after he parted ways with Chris Como, but I’ve heard Notah Begay, who went to college with Tiger, is involved in some capacity. Whatever is going on, it’s clearly working.
He’s a 42-year-old man and at the Valspar Championship he recorded the fastest clubhead speed on the PGA Tour this season. His ball speed is also into the 180-miles-per-hour range, which is staggeringly fast.
Many believed his intensive workout schedule helped bring about his physical downfall. It’s interesting to note now that it’s undoubtedly helping him to be one of the longest hitters on tour again.
What’s so encouraging is that he’s showed signs – not necessarily at the same time, but signs nonetheless – that every area of his game is sharp.
At the Valspar Championship, his fairways-hit percentage was impressive after spells of inauspicious driving in his first couple of events this year. His iron play has looked imperious at times and his short game is genuinely world-class once more.
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It wasn’t long ago that he was duffing chips left, right and centre – a mark of two things: talent never disappears, it lies dormant; and hard work can get you a long way.
I know his putting let him down in the last round at the Valspar – apart from that tramliner he holed on the 71st green – but the stroke has looked very solid for the most part and he’s made a lot of putts from within ten feet.
I already think we’re at the point where his name on the leaderboard carries significant gravitas.
The intimidation factor is 100 per cent back. It’s only been a couple of months, but the strides he’s made in such a short space of time have been staggering.
And you know what, I’m going to say it, Jack’s record is back on.
I’m not making any guarantees – that would be very foolish – but he’s only 42 and he needs four more Majors to tie the Golden Bear. Given how well he’s playing and the progress he’s made, it’s definitely not out of the question, right?
The fact I’m even writing that is quite amazing given what he’s been through over the last few years.
Another player who looks poised to challenge Woods this season and beyond is a resurgent Phil Mickelson. He’s had four top-six finishes in a row, including that brilliant victory in the WGC-Mexico Championship, where he beat Justin Thomas in a playoff. And the way he’s talking suggests he’s got more in the tank.
He’s seven wins short of 50 PGA Tour titles and I’m not prepared to say he won’t get there.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if Phil finally landed the US Open in the same year that Tiger announced his return to the big time with his 15th Major title?
Okay, I’m getting carried away, but can you blame me?
Wayne Riley is a former member of the European Tour and two-time winner who is part of the Sky Sports Golf Team. He writes exclusively for Golf Monthly