Best measure of Woods? When he has the lead
ST. LOUIS — Tiger Woods once said it could not be considered a truly great year without winning a major.
Five years ago, he never would have said it could be a good year without winning any tournament.
This year is an exception.
Woods closed with a 64 on Sunday at Bellerive, his lowest final round in a major. He finished at 266, breaking by three shots his personal best over 72 holes in a major. Neither was enough to win the PGA Championship.
His last major was 10 years ago. His last victory of any variety was five years ago.
It’s still been a good year.
Sixteen months ago, he announced his fourth back surgery in three years, the last one to fuse his lower spine. Ten months ago, doctors still had not given him clearance to swing a club. Eight months ago, he was No. 656 in the world ranking, one spot behind Lucas Nemecz of Austria. Now he’s No. 26, one spot behind Sergio Garcia.
“I didn’t even know if I was going to play golf again,” Woods said. “It’s been a hell of a process, for sure.”
The majors are over. The season is not.
With his runner-up finish, Woods moved to No. 20 in the FedEx Cup. That assures him three FedEx Cup playoff events, and a reasonable chance to return to East Lake for the Tour Championship. For now, they are little more than opportunities.
Because while this year of the comeback has been nothing short of remarkable, two elements are missing.
He still hasn’t won.
And he has yet to start the final round with at least a share of the lead.
Considering his reputation and record as golf’s greatest closer, those two might go hand-in-hand.
The PGA Championship was another example that while Woods remains larger than life to the fans, it isn’t enough to shake the players he is trying to beat. That’s not to suggest anyone ever gave Woods his 14 majors. It just seemed that way because he was winning so many of them. No one is going to give him any now.
The roars were never louder than when he hooked a 9-iron off the muddied, trampled grass on No. 9 and made birdie, except maybe for his approach into the 15th that plopped down a foot from the cup, bringing him within one shot of the lead.
Brooks Koepka never got rattled.
“You could hear a different roar every 30 seconds,” Koepka said. “So we knew what was going on. It’s pretty obvious when Tiger makes a birdie.”
Koepka, playing two groups behind Woods, missed three straight birdie putts from 10 feet or closer when Woods was making his last run. And then he poured in two in a row, the last one from 7 feet after the prettiest 4-iron he ever hit.
Francesco Molinari had it even tougher.
He was playing alongside Woods in the final round at Carnoustie when Woods took the lead for two holes, only to fall back with a double bogey on the 11th hole. Molinari forged through the noise without a bogey and won the British Open by two shots. The Italian became only the second player to win a major while paired with Woods in the final round. The other was Y.E. Yang in the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine, the only times Woods lost a 54-hole lead in a major.
Close calls at Carnoustie and Bellerive should at least be a reminder that Woods has never won a major when trailing going into the final round. He won all 14 of them from either the lead or a share of the lead, and his closing rate on the PGA Tour is astounding.
Woods is 43-2 when has the lead going into Sunday, and his record is 11-2 when he is tied for the lead.
Now he just has to get there.
He is good enough to win. That should no longer be up for debate.
Whether he still has that mystique is still to be determined. That starts with him being the hunted, and not the other way around.
Even in the best of times, Woods never charged his way to victory in a major. He started five shots behind at Hazeltine in the 2002 PGA Championship and birdied his last four holes, only for Rich Beem to make a 35-foot birdie on the 16th for some breathing room. Woods trailed at the Masters and U.S. Open in 2007 and quickly got into a tie for the lead, only to fade by not making enough putts.
Two shots behind Phil Mickelson going into Sunday at the 2006 Masters, Woods twice missed eagle putts inside 15 feet on the back nine to go along with six three-putts for the week. He finished two behind.
Give him the lead, give him the crowd, give him the opportunity, and Woods got it done with a rate never seen in golf.
That will be the next step, maybe the final step to see if that red shirt on Sunday still means something.