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Tiger Woods: Golf's biggest star is roaring back to the top

The sold out signs went up in Akron the second Tiger Woods edged into the world top 50 with his tied-sixth finish at the Open championship.

That result gained him entry into last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone, incidentally the scene of his last victory five years ago.

This is not the old Tiger we are seeing, the one that won 14 majors in 11 years. History shows there has been, and will only ever be, just the one of them.

But the reconstituted version is proving good enough to contend and enters the final major of the season, the PGA Championship at Bellerive in St Louis, justifiably among the favourites for the Wanamaker Trophy.

From a ranking of 1,199 last December, Woods is back among the elite and rising. His return is no longer a matter of romance but substantiated by cold, hard fact. Four top tens in 12 starts this year, two of those coming in his most recent events leading into Akron.

He finished one shot shy of taking the Valspar Championship into a play-off in March, and fifth a week later at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

At the Open Championship last month he led by a stroke on the final day with eight to play. A double bogey at the 11th followed by another dropped shot at the 12th eventually ended his challenge but not the idea of the Tiger resurrection.

Woods’ presence at the top of the leaderboard transformed the Carnoustie experience. His entrance on the first tee on day one evinced the biggest cheer of the opening round and reminded us what it felt like to be in the presence of box office gold.

Valspar Championship - Final Round

A Walk On The Wild Side

Since my newspaper, the i, does not publish on a Sunday, I thought I would treat myself to an extended period in the field and chose Rory McIlroy as my walking partner on Saturday afternoon. I was surprised at the space in the press gallery at the first tee, ordinarily oversubscribed when McIlroy pulls the big stick from the bag.

The steward pointed out that a cortege of reporters the size of a small football crowd had hooked itself to the Tiger train up ahead.

Woods was in the process of pinning a 66 to the leaderboard. The ensuing meltdown had nothing to do with the uncharacteristically hot summer. Six birdies and no bogeys were the bones of it, a controlled assault redolent of Woods at his peak inside the ropes, frenzy among those looking on.

As the heightened demands of championship Sunday began to account for the overnight leaders, Jordan Spieth, Kevin Kisner and Xander Schauffele, Woods slipped the old game face on and birdied the 4th and 6th to join the lead and then parred his way to the turn to take sole charge of the tournament.

In his previous event three weeks earlier, the Quicken Loans National, he had finished tied fourth. So Carnoustie was no accident. He faltered on the rump of a poor approach to the 11th followed by a chip that rolled back down a bank. Tiny, tiny margins.

The bogey at the 12th was almost a consequence of the double the previous hole. He steadied and briefly threatened again with a bounce-back birdie at the 14th. This was significant since his playing partner, Francesco Molinari, was now the man in front. A lesser version of the latter Woods might have folded. Not this one.

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Taking The Tiger Challenge

Interestingly Molinari spoke afterwards of the unique nature of the challenge he faced. It was not so much taking on the field, but doing so in a pairing with a contending Woods, which is like no other experience in golf.

“Playing with Tiger was a challenge because of the crowds and everything,” said Molinari, who birdied two of the final five holes to claim his first major championship.

“Tiger himself was great, really good sportsmanship with me. Obviously, there's a lot more people if you're grouped with him. I've done it before. I've played with him before in the Ryder Cup and in big occasions, so I knew what was coming and I was ready for it.”

World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational - Final Round

A more measurable scale of the Woods effect is economic. Following the withdrawal of Nike from the equipment market, Woods signed a deal to play with Bridgestone golf balls. Angel Ilagan, Bridgestone Golf CEO, explained his rationale a week before the Masters in April.

“We had a forecast for the year of selling balls and in ten days we sold our entire forecast. We were back-ordered and scrambling to make more for the balance of the year.

“If he wins we are in a whole lot of trouble because we are not going to be able to make enough product. We did research studies on him. We saw the impact on increasing sales. His endorsement alone increases our sales 30 percent even if he is not playing. The fact that he is playing increases everything.”

Woods had a similar impact on viewing figures at the Masters. NBC’s broadcast figures were up 40% on 2017. The final day was the most watched televised golf on any channel for three years. The PGA Tour reported similar upswings at the Valspar. Woods doesn’t move the needle, he annihilates it.

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That Winning Feeling

“I feel I can win again,” Tiger said.

“I’ve had the opportunity a couple of times. At the Valspar and even a week ago (Open) I had a great shot at it. I played myself into a great position leading outright for a little bit. I was laughing at it because most of the media at the time was sceptical of the game plan, yet the game plan played me right into the lead. A couple of mistakes at 11 and 12 cost me the chance.”

Woods leads the field in low rounds on Saturdays this year, so we can write off the relative poverty of his third round at Firestone, a modest 73 to drift 11 shots off the lead. The curve of the performance graph is pointing in the right direction. That first win since 2013 is not far away.

Should it come on Sunday at Bellerive to nail that 15th major a decade after no.14, we will be talking about one of the greatest sports stories ever told, a comeback on the scale of Muhammad Ali’s second world title triumph against George Foreman, seven years after his first.

Remember, Woods could not walk in a straight line in May of last year when invited to do so by the Florida traffic cops who found him pickled in prescription drugs at the wheel of his car.

In that context, walking to the first tee anywhere is a triumph. Playing professional golf is a bonus he thought impossible when staring down the lens of the Jupiter Police Department camera. Fifteen months on, disappointment is a dodgy weekend at Firestone. He’ll take that.

Besides, it will be forgotten when he tees it up in St Louis alongside defending PGA champion Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy, who as fate would have it were paired in the final group on Sunday at Firestone.

This is the company Woods is keeping now, not as a nod to a celebrated past, but to his status as a genuine contender. Get ready with that bunting.

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