DORAL, Fla. — There is a fascination with numbers when it comes to Tiger Woods, a product of him winning so much over so many years.
He now has 76 wins on the PGA Tour, six short of the record 82 by Sam Snead, and one more than Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh combined. His two-shot victory at Doral was his 17th in the World Golf Championships. No one else has won more than three. The Cadillac Championship was the 22nd time he has taken at least a three-shot lead into the final round on tour, and he has won them all.
But there is only one number that matters.
Woods is measured by majors, and he has not made up any ground on the record 18 won by Jack Nicklaus in five years.
He remains stuck on 14.
Woods stamped himself as the favorite at Augusta National, not so much because he has won twice before the Masters for the first time since 2008, but for the way he built big leads and never gave anyone else much hope. The less excitement about the way he wins, the more intimidating he looks.
Woods had a two-shot lead at the halfway point of Torrey Pines, doubled it going into the final round and stretched it to eight shots before he lost patience and interest in the Monday finish.
Despite dropping four shots in the last five holes, he still won by four.
He led by at least three shots from the 11th hole Saturday at Doral until a conservative bogey on the final hole gave him a two-shot win over Steve Stricker.
“That’s how I know I can play,” Woods said. “That’s the thing. To be able to bring it out a couple times so far this year — and then be able to close and get the Ws on top of that — that’s nice. Any time I can win prior to Augusta, it always feels good.”
The temptation is to declare that Woods is back, though that should come with a note of caution.
It looked like he was back when he won at Bay Hill last year by five shots over Graeme McDowell, and then he tied for 40th in the Masters. It looked like he had that old magic back when he rallied to win the Memorial, and then he went into a weekend fog at The Olympic Club and didn’t crack the top 20.
And while he has won twice this year, his record includes a missed cut to start the year at Abu Dhabi, and a tie for 37th at the Honda Classic when he never broke par any of the four rounds because of two lost balls, four shots in the water and four double bogeys. He also lost in the Match Play Championship, which is not a good measure because he was 2-under par (without a bogey on his card) through 17 holes and ran into a guy (Charles Howell III) who played a little bit better that day.
How he fares at Bay Hill in two weeks — he could go back to No. 1 in the world with a win — will determine the degree of expectations going into the Masters.
McDowell might be the best judge of Woods among players.
He now has played in the final group with Woods three times in just over two years. McDowell saw some shockingly bad shots by Woods at the Chevron World Challenge in December 2010 when he made up a four-shot deficit against Woods and beat him in a playoff behind two clutch birdies.
Woods had a one-shot lead over McDowell in the final round at Bay Hill last year and pulled away in conditions so firm, fast and scary that Woods referred to it as a U.S. Open that broke out in Orlando. Woods won by five.
They played the final 36 holes together at Doral, and McDowell gave him a good fight. Turns out it wasn’t a fair fight.
Woods had a solid command of his shots, and he putted as well as he has all year, thanks to that tip from Stricker. Woods made 61-of-64 putts inside 10 feet for the week on the Blue Monster. He missed only one putt inside 5 feet out of 52 chances.
The most significant putt by Woods came on the second hole, when McDowell stuffed his approach inside 7 feet and Woods matched him with an 18-foot birdie putt of his own. What won’t get as much attention is a stretch of holes early on the back nine, when Woods poured in a 6-foot birdie putt on the par-5 10th hole, and made tricky 5-foot par putts look easy on the 12th and 13th holes to keep his margin.
“I said in the press room last night, ‘He doesn’t look phenomenal, it just looks really, really good.’ And that probably came out wrong because what I mean is the golf courses don’t let you be phenomenal,” McDowell said, referring to Doral on Sunday and Bay Hill a year ago.
“You’ve got to be under control,” he said. “In this wind the last couple days, his ball flight control is pretty stunning, really. 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.”
And how did Woods compare with the World Challenge at the end of 2010?
“He doesn’t have those off-the-radar balls anymore,” McDowell said. “In ‘10, ‘11 when I was playing with him, he would hit the odd shot where you would just of blink twice and go, ‘Really, that’s wide.’ He’s got the ball under control now. He knows exactly what his golf swing is going to produce.”
Despite the up-and-down results at the start of the year, the big picture indicates an upward trend for Woods.
He went the last six months of 2012 without winning anywhere, and he didn’t register consecutive top 10s until the FedEx Cup playoffs in September. Even so, Woods finished off that season with five straight finishes in the top 10.
Woods now has won more than half his PGA Tour events (40) on seven courses — Torrey Pines, Firestone, Bay Hill, Cog Hill, Muirfield Village, Doral and Augusta National. All are considered tough courses, and most of those wins came against some of the strongest fields.
He has won five times in the last year — the most of anyone in the world — and all were on strong golf courses.
“I felt that toward the end of last year that I was heading that direction, where things were becoming better,” Woods said. “That gave me so much confidence heading into the offseason that I was heading in the right direction. Just keep going, keep plugging along, keep working with the things that Sean (Foley) wants me to do. And lo and behold, I’ve had two really good weeks this year.”
The question now is where it will lead.
This was the eighth time in his career that Woods has won at least two PGA Tour events before the Masters. In six of the previous seven years, he went on to win a major.