If anyone needed evidence Tiger Woods was again on the prowl, the recent Australian Open was exhibit ‘A’.

He led early, faltered somewhat on Saturday, before staging a final round charge, but it was the old swagger and the sublime ball striking which stood him apart from the rest. He made a few unforced errors on Saturday and didn’t manage to make enough putts throughout the week to win at the Lakes, but the signs were there.

The President’s Cup was exhibit ‘B’. The first few days he struggled with the partner thing, but Tiger was never great at fourballs and foursomes even back in his glory years. Tee to green he was impressive at Royal Melbourne and his putting was closer on what were devilishly difficult greens. Then on Sunday against Aaron Baddeley he elevated his game to another level – just like he used to when it really mattered.

You could see in his body language he knew he was on the cusp of being back to where he wants to be.

From there it was to the Chevron in California. Largely an exhibition, an event where some take it more seriously than others, the Chevron brings together 18 of the world’s best players. When he had a chance to win, Tiger was definitely one of those to take the event seriously.

It was Tiger ‘theatre’ of days gone by.  Zac Johnson provided the support, performing strongly enough to bring something special out of Tiger, who managed to rekindle the flame of years gone. It was one of those moments when, despite the fact he was one shot behind with two holes to play, everyone sensed Tiger was about to find a way to win. It was just like it used to be.

When he knocked in that putt on 18 from about eight feet, Johnson produced a grin and a nod which would have been reciprocated by not only those in the Chevron field, but by all who were around two years or more ago and had experienced numerous a Tiger ‘moments’.

Some may not have nodded and smiled like Johnson, rather they could have cursed the fact that Tiger was clawing back. However happy for his success or otherwise, all will agree the golfing world will be better for it. A hungry Tiger devouring golf courses and dominating major tournaments is what has been missing since the Australian Masters of 2009. And I for one am glad that he has turned a corner and is back on track.

The Australian Open in Sydney showed that despite having a collection of the world’s best players, including all the leading local hopes, if you have Tiger, you have a significant event.

The galleries flocked to see Tiger, to watch his every move, to live every shot. With all due respect, it was only when he was finished for the day that the crowds moved on to watch the likes of Adam Scott, Jason Day, Geoff Ogilvy, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar and company. During any other year they are star attractions at the Australian Open. With Tiger in the field they were the supporting cast.

Whatever the event organisers and the NSW Government paid Tiger was well worth it. Such was the value for money they should double down next year and do it all again.

With the apparent resurrection of the Tiger, clubhouse debates are sure to again centre on whether the records of the great Jack Nicklaus are under threat. Arguments will rage as to who might be the best of all time.

Some will say Jack is the greatest of all time. They say the talent was better. He had to beat Player and Palmer, Watson and Miller, Trevino, all superstars in their own right. As Devil’s Advocate on the side of Tiger, I counter that while there is no doubt they provided formidable opposition and were champions of the sport during their time, they were just a handful who were capable of challenging.

My rationale says Tiger now faces fields where upwards of 50 guys can theoretically win on any given week. The depth of talent, for reasons I will get to, has never been as strong as right now.

I am firm in the belief the youngsters of the day have no fear of success. Keegan Bradley had never even played in a major before he won the US PGA. Rory McIlroy is barely out of his teens. He won the US Open. Charl Schwartzel, another young gun was someone who had never previously threatened on a Sunday in one of the big four championships. He stormed home with birdies on the three closing holes to claim the Masters.

The theory back in the day was you had to lose a major or two before winning one. The youngsters of today are oblivious to that hypothesis.

Then there is the physical element. Jack dominated because of his length and strength. He overpowered courses and intimidated his opposition in the process.

These days everybody is long, some are just a little longer than others. Tiger admits he can’t keep up with the likes of Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson and Gary Woodland. The driving distance average on the PGA Tour in 2011 was 290 yards. A decade ago that was the almost the mark of the driving distance leader. Even if Tiger smashes it past most of them, 10 yards on his rivals hardly gives him the massive advantage in length Jack once had over the majority of the contenders.

Throw in the equipment available today–the balls, the clubs and the driver– it all equates to the fact that hitting it out of the middle of the clubface isn’t the priority it once was. Modern technology comes together to take a little bit of skill out of the equation and to bring the fields closer together. The winning scores haven’t changed much, but the average player is closer to the best nowadays than he ever was.

Jack’s talent was allowed to create a wider gap than Tiger could ever hope to enjoy over his competition because of the equipment that was available to him and his colleagues. Jack was outstanding, yes, but his brilliance was allowed to prosper where today factors conspire to bring Tiger back to the pack.

So in the coming months, and the next few years, it will become clearer for all. If Tiger’s return to prominence over the past few weeks is the start of something special, tournament golf could be about to be fun again. Even those who hold Tiger’s off-course indiscretions against him, using them as a reason to wish failure upon him, if they have any desire for the game of golf to prosper, to be on the back page instead of an afterthought 10 pages in, they too will have no choice but to join the masses in hoping that a second Tiger coming is on the horizon.

Is Tiger the best player of all time? We could soon find out. Some will say ‘not yet’ and then lean on the record books for back up. At this stage the majority would probably agree with them. However whatever the answer, whichever side of the fence you might sit, the reality is Tiger fans such as myself now have good reason to believe.


About Rob Willis

An amateur standout, winning the NSW Amateur and Australian Medal in 1988, before going down in the final of the 1990 Australian Amateur Championship, Rob Willis turned professional in 1992, playing the Australasian and Asian Tours, with his highlight being his victory in the 1995 Dubai Creek Open and third placing at the European Tour's Dubai Dessert Classic. A former Editor of Golf Australia Magazine, Willis, who ventured away from golf for a period to be the media manager for the NRL's Cronulla Sharks, has been a contributor to PGA Australia's PGA Magazine for over a decade and for Inside Golf since its first edition back in 2005.


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