April 21, 2014

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Doug Ferguson: Tiger might not even be in his prime

Four victories in his last five starts is proof enough that Tiger Woods is more dominant than ever, especially considering he won those four tournaments by a combined 20 shots and shattered tournament scoring records in consecutive weeks.
More evidence came from his caddie as he waited for Woods to arrive for the final round of the Tour Championship.
“He hasn’t hit a practice ball since the British Open,” Steve Williams said. “I’ve been with him nearly 10 years now, and this is the best I’ve ever seen him hit the ball.”
No practice? Not quite.
What he meant was that Woods has such command over his game that he stopped going to the practice range after his rounds since returning home from Carnoustie.
Woods confirmed as much when he left East Lake with his two trophies — one for the Tour Championship, one for the FedEx Cup.
“Hey, there was no need to go,” he said with a shrug and a smile.
Whether this is the best he has ever played is up for debate, but don’t expect Woods to participate. He is always looking forward, always trying to figure out a way to get better. That’s what makes it so daunting for the guys trying to reach his level. They know they have to get better, and that’s assuming Woods doesn’t continue to improve himself.
So far, that hasn’t happened.
Since his latest round of swing changes took root at the end of 2004, Woods has won 21 times on the PGA Tour. That’s more than Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Jim Furyk combined over the last three years.
And the truly scary part is that Woods, at age 31, might still be years away from his prime.
“I don’t know when it’s going to be,” Woods said. “The whole idea is to try and keep improving. When all is said and done, when you rack the cue and go home and retire, you can honestly say, ‘These were my best years, when I was at my peak.’ But when you’re in it, you’re always trying to improve that a little bit to get to the next level.”
As the trophies keep piling up, the numbers are staggering.
Woods now has won 61 times in just more than 11 full years on the PGA Tour. Jack Nicklaus was 36 when he captured his 61st tour victory. He has won 28 percent of the time since turning pro, and that if that number is hard to fathom alone, consider than Mickelson has won 9 percent of his tournaments, Singh is at 8 percent and Ernie Els at 6 percent.
Woods’ final putt for par at East Lake put him at 23-under 257 for the lowest 72-hole score of his career, and six shots better than the previous record at the Tour Championship. A week earlier at Cog Hill, he broke the tournament record by five shots at 22-under 262, winning by two over Aaron Baddeley.
With his 2007 season in the books — all he has left is the Presidents Cup and his Target World Challenge in December — Woods finished with a 67.79 adjusted scoring average, equaling his record from the 2000 season.
And while the $10,867,052 was short by $38,114 of the record Singh set in 2004, the big Fijian played 29 times that year. Woods played in only 16 tournaments. That’s an average of $172,493 per round.
Woods said the latest adjustment since the British Open, where he tied for 12th, was simply shifting the weight more toward the balls of his feet for better balance. That made it appear he was standing closer to the ball.
Swing coach Hank Haney hasn’t seen much change the last two years, with one exception. What he watched with regularity on the range at Woods’ home course in Isleworth, he now sees more often inside the ropes on the PGA Tour.
“I’ve seen him play like this and hit the ball like this the last couple of years — for sure the last year — but most of times I’ve seen that, it’s been at Isleworth,” Haney said Sunday from his home in Dallas. “It’s only been bits and pieces in tournaments.”
It’s still not perfect.
Woods lunged at one tee shot on the 16th hole at East Lake in the opening round, scolding himself when it sailed to the right.
“Tiger Woods!” he said through clenched teeth. “Trust your swing.”
Haney believes that trust was evident at Oakmont in the third round of the U.S. Open, when Woods hammered a driver down the middle of the fairway on his way to perhaps his best ball-striking round of the year. He hit 17 greens in regulation that day.
“I know what that hole feels like to him. It’s really tight,” Haney said. “On the practice tee, he said, ‘I’m driving the ball in the fairway.’ And he piped it right down the middle, then did the same thing on Sunday. I felt that was big turning point in his confidence.”
Woods didn’t see it that way.
In his eyes, the turning point came at the Western Open last July. He had just missed the cut in a major for the first time, opened with a 72 at Cog Hill, then spent hours that Thursday afternoon on the practice range. It was hard work, but enjoyable.
For the first time since his father died, it was fun.
“I got over all the things that happened earlier, and I finally got back to just playing golf again,” he said. “That mourning period … I felt I was done with it. Once I got back to playing golf, I felt I was back in my rhythm again. And from then, if you look at my results since then, it’s been pretty good.”
No one ever thought that 2000 season could ever be topped, and it probably remains the benchmark. Woods won nine times in 20 starts, including three straight majors, and three victories of at least eight shots. But his highest winning percentage was last year (8-of-15), and his adjusted scoring average is the same as it was in 2000.
Instead of looking back, consider the future.
What if he still hasn’t hit his prime?

Doug Ferguson is the national golf writer for The Associated Press.