Tiger's all-around game shines in win

DORAL, Fla. -- A golfer is never really satisfied, but to find fault with Tiger Woods' game now all but means perfection is expected in a game that never allows it.

Sure, Woods made a sloppy bogey at the final hole to win by 2 shots -- the closest anyone got to him Sunday -- and he could hit a few more fairways and maybe he needs to figure out a way to climb up the occasional tree when his ball comes to rest in one.

But his performance at the Trump Doral Resort this week in winning the WGC-Cadillac Championship was simply his best since the fourth major overhaul of his swing began under Sean Foley in August of 2010.

That doesn't mean he will win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in two weeks or the Masters next month; the game is too fickle, too unpredictable, too maddening to make those kinds of assumptions. But it is impressive nonetheless.

His caddie, Joe LaCava, said this was Woods' best 72-hole performance since hooking up with him in October 2011. Woods took only 100 putts, the lowest total in his PGA Tour career. His 27 birdies were just one short of the most he has ever made in an event.

He won for the fifth time in 50 weeks, the second time in 2013 and narrowed the gap on No. 1 Rory McIlroy in the Official World Golf Rankings.

And let's not get into the most ridiculous question in golf: Is he back?

Back to what? Woods is 37, and while he admirably talks about trying to be better than ever and is wired in a way that elite performers must be, those mortals among us must realistically acknowledge that such comparisons are unfair.

Who, in sports, is better at age 37 than 27? Do we really think he is going to duplicate the feats of 2000, when he won three majors (something accomplished only once prior in the game's modern history)? And are we going to call him a failure if he doesn't?

And yet, Woods might again be the best in the world.

"He's been playing like this for quite some time," acknowledged longtime rival Phil Mickelson, who tried to make a run at Doral but finished 5 strokes back in a tie for third. "All last year and this year now. He's pretty strong. Playing at a pretty high level week in and week out it seems like."

Woods was seventh in the field in greens in regulation and second in putting and although he missed too many fairways -- tied for 30th in the 65-player field -- it hardly hurt him. What the stats don't show is the improvement in his irons, especially the short, scoring clubs.

What often matters most to Woods is hitting his approach shots pin high. That is a sign of distance control, and countless times, there was Woods in that range, putting for birdie. It is a subtle, yet important factor in his improvement.

"I said he doesn't look phenomenal, it just looks really, really good," said Graeme McDowell, who played with Woods the last two days and tied for third. "And that probably came out wrong because what I mean is the golf courses don't let you be phenomenal. You've got to be under control.

"In this wind the last couple days, his ball flight control is pretty stunning, really, the way he flights his irons around. It's pretty cool to watch. I thought his short game and putting the last couple days was very impressive. He cleaned up everything he had to clean up pretty much. It was good stuff."

Of course, Woods had a fortuitous meeting with Steve Stricker on Doral's practice putting green on Wednesday afternoon. Woods said the meeting was not set up, that they happened to see each other. Woods, uncomfortable with the way he was putting, had Stricker take a look.

After some 45 minutes -- and with more than a little minor tweaking -- Stricker had Woods putting the way he wanted, the way he felt he putted in winning at Torrey Pines in January.

Would Tiger have figured it out on his own?

"I would like to say probably would have, but ... there's a but in there," Woods said, smiling.

"His attitude and what I saw this week and his belief in himself again looks very similar to the early 2000s or you can pick any year, I guess, when he was playing great," said Stricker, who finished second, 2 shots back. "He just seems in a better place mentally to me. Seems to be having fun. Seems to have a lot of confidence in himself and his game.

"And that's fun to see, that he's getting it back again, and we know what type of player he is. And it's fun to see him get that potential and that winning way again."

Woods now has 76 PGA Tour titles. He has won 17 World Golf Championship events. He has won at Doral four times, won this particular WGC seven times. He now has more victories than Mickelson (41) and Vijay Singh (34) combined. He has closed the deal on numerous 54-hole leads and won as much as McIlroy in the past year.

All of that is great, but inevitably the attention will turn to his drought in the major championships, the nearly five years that have transpired since he won the 2008 U.S. Open for his 14th major title. He'll arrive at Augusta National next month having gone eight years since winning the Masters.

A good bit of attention will be on him in Georgia, and there is no guarantee he will win. But he has certainly better prepared to do so than at any time in the past four years.

That is why the early part of 2013, specifically his play at Doral, is so significant.