Is Tiger Woods really back this time?
(CNN) — When Tiger Woods ended his 30-month wait for a PGA Tour title in March, the golf world was excited by the prospect of the 14-time major champion blitzing the Masters field on his old stomping ground at Augusta.
He didn’t. He flopped, finishing tied for 40th. Woods then missed the cut at Quail Hollow and shared 40th at the Players Championship.
So what can we expect at next week’s U.S. Open, where he has already been installed as the oddsmakers’ favorite after thrilling fans with his 73rd PGA Tour title on Sunday, chipping in with one of the best shots of his career?
“The timing couldn’t have been better, it means a lot for him to win in front of his hero Jack Nicklaus,” says Golf.com deputy editor David Dusek.
“If he plays at that level, if he’s able to hit fairways and find the putting stroke that he showed in Ohio, then Tiger Woods is definitely going to be one of the contenders at the U.S. Open.”
That can only be good for golf. The PGA Tour’s broadcaster CBS Sports reported that Sunday’s ratings increased 138% from last year, being the event’s best result since 2004.
The season’s second major will be held at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, where Woods revealed he practiced the week before going to Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament.
“I hit the ball well there. I said, ‘Hey, that’s as good a prep as any for this event, if I can hit the ball well there.’ I just basically carried that into this event and hit it great all week.”
Woods acknowledged that his victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational had covered up some of the deficiencies in his game before the Masters as he was still coming to terms with his new swing.
“At Bay Hill I played well on that Sunday, but I just didn’t quite have the control I did here. That was different. I’m able to hit the ball, I think, compressing it higher than I did at Bay Hill,” he told reporters.
“I was comfortable hitting it down, uncomfortable hitting it up. As I said at Augusta to you guys, I got exposed, wasn’t able to get the ball up in the air comfortably, and it showed.
“I went to work on it for the next few weeks, and I finally got it. It came around here when I needed it. This is a high-ball golf course. You’ve got to get the ball up in the air and you’ve got to land it soft, and I did it.”
While the technique being instilled by coach Sean Foley is finally paying off for Woods, Dusek says more importantly the 36-year-old is rediscovering the “X-Factor” that made him the world’s best-paid athlete.
“He’s got his putter going a little bit, he was hitting fairways, and as we saw with that shot on 16 it would be appear that there’s a level of magic surrounding this guy that he’s able to summon. Not as consistently as he used to, but it’s still there,” Dusek told CNN.
“Obviously the technique has to be there, he has to put the club face on the ball and to execute his shot, but golf probably more than any other sport relies on the proverbial 15th club — which is the confidence between your ears that you can pull this off.
“Tiger Woods obviously has a lot of confidence right now, and he should — there’s only a couple of other players on the U.S. PGA Tour this season who have two wins, and he’s one of them along with Jason Dufner and Hunter Mahan.”
Dusek believes that the way is clear for Woods to win his first major title since 2008, when he famously triumphed at the U.S. Open in a playoff despite suffering a serious knee injury that would sideline him for the rest of that year.
“We’ve seen Rory McIlroy miss three straight cuts, we’ve seen (world No. 1) Luke Donald not really be much of a factor, and (five-time U.S. Open runner-up) Phil Mickelson having to pull out (at Memorial) citing fatigue,” Dusek said.
“Tiger Woods then wins his 73rd championship and it’s so tantalizing a story that leading up to the U.S. Open next week that his form once again seems to be ramping up.”
The tournament was last held at Olympic Club in 1998, when a 23-year-old Woods tied for 18th.
“It’s way different than in ’98. They’ve added some serious length there,” he said.
“We were hitting different clubs off the tees and different sight lines, and they’ve shifted a couple of the fairways over, and all new green complexes. You know, my book is useless from ’98.”
So what does Woods think — is he really back?
“I’ll just keep going, keep working on it. This is a process, and I’m just trying to get better.”