From youthful phenom to golfing demi-god, then to tabloid fodder and utter dispair, Tiger Woods is finally coming out of the censorious cloud that has hung over him for two plus years.
He's reached the winner's circle once more, regained control over his golf swing with some (finally) healthy legs and new coach, and has seemingly come to terms with where he is now in his life. He's 36 years old, four majors shy of his life-long goal of Jack Nicaklaus' record of 18, and amongst a field of competitors where the talent gap has shrunk to a sliver.
But when Tiger takes the tee Thursday morning at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, he not only returns to the tournament for the first time in a decade, it also may mark the beginning of the next act in the epic saga of Eldrick Tiger Woods.
Tiger has two very attainable, and very prestigious, records left ahead of him in his career; the aforementioned record set by the Golden Bear, and Swingin' Sam Snead's record of 82 PGA Tour victories. Out of the top five majors winners of all-time, only one man has was less than 4 majors after his 36th birthday, Walter Hagen with his 1929 Open Championship. Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player both won four after turning 36, while Ben Hogan has a whopping six. This is certainly not beyond Tiger's reach.
As for good ol' Sammy Snead? Well, he won a meager 38 PGA Tour tournaments after his 36th birthday, Tiger only needs to win 11.
But through all the swing changes over his career, the one thing more than anything else that has won Tiger his championships is his short game, most notably the flat stick. Tiger's been in a two-year funk with his putter, something that significantly hindered his game despite the injuries and distractions. Here's a look at Tiger's strokes gained- putting stats: a metric that measures a players putting proficiency:
2011: .258 (45th on Tour)
2010: -.033 (109th)
2009: .874 (2nd)
2008: .844 (3rd)
Some feel that it's age creeping up with him, such as two-time Masters Champion Ben Crenshaw, arguably one of the best putters to have ever lived:
"From my time on tour, it seemed when a player reaches about 35 years old ... it's [putting] going to start leveling off. No question, it's a curious thing."
"Right now, he's maybe a very slight notch below the way he putted in the past," Crenshaw said. "But I'll say this: I don't think there's ever been a player who putted better for a long stretch of time than Tiger. Anyone. In my mind, I've never seen so many important putts go down."
That may be bad news for the record books, and everyone else playing against Tiger.
Pebble Beach is of course the site of his historic 15-stroke U.S. Open victory where he putted brilliantly. But that was then. Tiger has openly complained about the Poa annua greens at Pebble in the past, most notably during the 2010 U.S. Open when he called them 'awful,' much to the chagrin of the USGA's executive director David Fay. And during this time of year the Poa can be very bumpy and soft, very tough to read at times, even for top professionals.
He's been putting noticeably better in his last two events; the 18-man Chevron World Challenge he won back in December and the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship two weeks ago in which he lost the 54-hole lead. A few more putts drop here or there, it could have been 2-2 for Tiger as of late.
Tiger will be in a relaxed atmosphere playing with his buddy Tony Romo all this week, on a course he knows all too well. Pair that with his intense desire to win and you have the fixings for an all out Tiger attack.
That is, of course, if he can manage to sink some putts.