Thankfully, we no longer have to wonder if Tiger Woods will ever win another major championship. Yesterday’s victory at the US Masters emphatically addressed that matter but it is the manner of his victory that resonates strongest.
Yesterday, we saw the old Tiger doing what we all took for granted at one stage in his career, being probably the toughest competitors on the planet. While no one will ever forget his past accomplishments, the past decade has not been good to a wayward and injury-prone Tiger, But yesterday’s victory is an opportunity now to perhaps open up the third instalment of a remarkable career.
In hindsight, no one should ever underestimate the impact of Tiger’s successful back surgery a couple of years ago. It gave him back his life and allowed him to dream about being a competitive golfer once more and yesterday was the culmination of that dream.
It was, in my opinion, his finest ever victory.
Yesterday, Tiger had to dig deep, perhaps deeper than he had ever fought before, but his body language was of a man always in control of his emotions. At times his game was scrappy but he never lost touch with the leaders and when the opportunity presented itself, he didn’t have to ask for a second chance.
The quality of his approach play down the final stretch suggested a man relishing, not fearing, the enormity of the opportunity that had presented itself. Tiger had clearly learned from those close contention run-in experiences during last year’s Open and PGA Championships.
His victory will now start the endless Tiger-watch to see if he can match and beat Jack Nicklaus’s major championship tally. It will also motivate his fellow competitors to raise their game. Tiger’s back alright.
Coming into this past week’s US Masters everything seemed to be aligning nicely for Rory McIlroy. Six top-six performances in as many appearances, including a win at the prestigious Tournament Players Championship qualified as the best possible preparation for the Masters, the final major required in his quest for grand slam glory.
McIlroy knows Augusta National well. Having come close to winning there on a number of occasions, he would have known all about the approach shot requirements to its traditional pin positions. He would have understood the holes he needed to be aggressive on and the holes where he needed to grind out a score, but two outstanding questions remained? Could he putt consistently well enough and could he handle the enormous pressure that this week presents each year.
The answer to both, unfortunately, was no.
As much as McIlroy tried, his game last week was little better than C+ and once again the occasion seemed to get the better of him. Too many mistakes, he would admit himself, but the reality is that his iron play was nowhere near the standard required to win his first green jacket. He will take some comfort from his final round 68 yesterday but the sobering fact is that Rory can’t rely on flair alone to guarantee his future successes. He must pay even more attention to the detail.
Tony Finau is a very good player. He is a tremendously long hitter with a wonderful short game but yesterday he looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights.
That may sound a tad harsh but body language counts, especially at the very top where the difference between exceptional and ordinary are tiny margins.
Finau’s stellar play over the first three days meant that he very much deserved his last round grouping with Tiger Woods and Francesco Molinari, but at times during the round you felt that he was almost trying to get out of their way as they competed for the bigger prize.
That said, there is no doubt but that yesterday would have been a huge learning experience for him. He had the best possible seat to witness the greatest golfer of his generation chisel out a victorious round, that at one stage looked to be getting away from him. The greatest golfers always find a way. Finau will be a better player for his experience yesterday. That will most likely include a poker face and body language that gives nothing away.
You don’t win the Open Championship around Carnoustie without being a brilliant player and Francesco Molinari’s winning form this year meant that he started yesterday’s round as the favourite. A two-shot lead entering the final round for a player of the calibre of Molinari is a lot but if there was a chink of light for the opposition, it was that he would have to play with and beat one of the greatest competitors the game has ever had, the same man who chased him hard early in the back nine during his victorious run last year at Carnoustie.
Over the first nine holes yesterday, Molinari looked very much the major champion that he is but slowly you sensed around the turn that he was not fully in control of his emotions. As good as his par putt on the ninth and his brilliant chip and putt on the 10th were, they gave the likes of Woods and his fellow competitors hope.
Molinari is usually a brilliant ball striker and would have been rattled by his loose shots,none more so than the terrible shot he hit into the 12th which ultimately presented the only opportunity Tiger Wood’s needed to win his 15th major championship. This will be a tough pill to swallow now for Molinari but the Italian has already proven he is made of stern stuff and will no doubt rebound from this a better player.