Another Green Jacket up for grabs as Tiger Woods' game looks back to its best
Woods' win at Doral was his most significant since the 2009 scandal. Kevin Garside studies six facets of World No 2's new approach with the Masters just a month away
1 On the dance floor
100, a big number, but not over four days on rapier greens. That is the total number of putts Tiger Woods sank to win over Doral's Blue Monster last week, the lowest of his career. This is where it starts and ends for Woods, where his rivals see the whites of his eyes, and why he is favourite to end his five-year major hiatus at the Masters next month. In his pomp, everything inside 15 feet disappeared. After a chat with fabled flat-stick guru, Steve Stricker, on the eve of the Cadillac Championship, Woods rediscovered the key to nirvana. He recorded a career-best 24 birdies over the first three rounds in Miami. His tournament total of 27 was only one shy of his best, and that's because he was protecting a four-shot lead on Sunday not trying to shoot the lights out.
2 Off the tee
Woods was never gun-barrel straight with a driver in his hands. Long, yes; accurate, most of the time; wild, some of the time. Since taking up with Sean Folley following Hank Haney's withdrawal during the post-scandal fallout, Woods has completely remodelled his swing to take account of the injuries that have savaged his left leg over the years. Accuracy is now at a premium. He feels he can hit the high draw, the cut or the low stinger to order. He has acquired a love of the strategic three-wood, which in his hands is no impediment to length since he hits it further than most do a driver. Last year at the US Open he consistently hit the big stick beyond playing partners Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson, who both hit it a country mile.
3 On the fairway
Finally, Woods is consistently hitting his yardages. Pros calculate back from the pin working the ball off the tee into a position where they can attack the hole from the right distance, one that best suits their game and conditions. Woods claims that he is hitting his irons longer than he ever has. This is due in the most part to ball technology and improvement in equipment. The real leap made by Woods this year is managing better his distance control. There are fewer surprises because he is utterly at ease with the swing changes made. "I feel like my game's becoming more efficient, and it's more consistent day-in and day-out. I'm very pleased with the progress I've made with Sean. That's obviously a big change from when we started out."
4 Holding his nerve
Woods was groomed by his parents to compete. That cold stare he takes on to the course is effectively a mind-management system that permits no intrusion from without. Even on the bad days, Woods dogs it out, evidenced by the low number of missed cuts during a 17-year career. They remain in single figures. Woods also understands the impact the death stare has on others. When he is on his game, he knows it's worth a shot or two a round. Just ask Ernie Els how playing with Woods impacted on his career. Woods' iron nerve never deserted him. His ability to execute under pressure is now demonstrably back to its formidable best because it is aligned to a more secure technique. And on the greens he is a beast again. That makes him doubly dangerous.
5 Taking on his rivals
Golf is no different to any other sport in loving a head-to-head. Woods has taken them all down over the years, from Vijay Singh and Els, through to David Duval and Mickelson. The sex scandal of 2009 and the marriage breakdown that followed, coupled with persistent injuries, was arguably his toughest opponent. He's over all that now and staring down the new generation led by world No 1 Rory McIlroy, already a double major winner at 23. Miami was a big week for both, Woods demonstrating the return of omnipotence, McIlroy that the switch to Nike and the Honda Classic meltdown are no longer issues. He was magnificent on Sunday, posting a bogey-free 65 that was bettered only by Adam Scott. Woods could retake the No 1 spot even before the Masters with victory at Bay Hill. McIlroy plays once before Augusta, at Houston. Then it's all about the Green Jacket, Woods' desire to bank that 15th major and McIlroy's to lay the ghost of 2011 and prove he really is the man.
6 On the catwalk
The one area where Woods is struggling. Woods dresses – as well as putts – like the avuncular Steve Stricker. McIlroy wins this one hands down in Nike's edgy, new bling range.