It was never a matter of “if,” but “when.” After 1,876 days, 239 PGA Tour events, and 119 different winners, Tiger Woods returned to the winner’s circle, one of the greatest comebacks in golf history – and that’s exactly where he’s supposed to be. Even if the events of Thanksgiving nine years ago never happened, even if the series of debilitating injuries and surgeries never took place, historic Tiger would be gone. Woods is a 42-year-old champion no longer in his prime, but he’s proven there’s still plenty of great golf left in his tank.

 

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According to the oddsmakers, Tiger will win a major championship next season. He’d be the first to tell you he’s not all the way back until he grabs that elusive number 15. If he does, it won’t be as the virtually unbeatable version of himself from a decade or so ago. But comparing Tiger then versus Tiger now is a compelling exercise, and the similarities might surprise you. How does the old Tiger stack up against the current Tiger? You be the judge.

Clubhead Speed

When Tiger won his 11th Player of the Year Award and ninth Vardon Trophy in 2013, his clubhead speed was 118.3 mph. In 2008 when he won his last major championship, Woods averaged 124 mph. Now you’d probably think that a 42-year-old golfer who’s undergone seven surgeries, no matter their name, is going to lose swing speed. It’s one of golf’s inevitabilities. When you get older, you don’t swing as fast. Unless you’re Tiger.

In 2018 Woods not only averaged almost 121 mph off the tee (a full seven mph faster than the Tour average), he also recorded the fastest clubhead speed of the entire season (129.2 mph at the Valspar Championship). Granted, Tiger’s power today doesn’t give him the same competitive advantage he enjoyed at his peak, but he’s once again producing swing speeds that can overpower any course.

Driving Accuracy

At times this season all Tiger could do was stand in disbelief at his struggles with the driver. Remember driving into the pretzel stand at Honda? Woods hit fairways only 58.9 percent of the time and had to do some insanely amazing things to save himself from disasters off the tee. Woods gets a pass, however, because even prior to his comeback, driving accuracy has never been his strong suit.
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Woods ranked 69th in driving accuracy in 2013, and in 2008 (when he won four times), he found the fairway even fewer times than this past season. Tiger has recorded a negative strokes gained off the tee in six of the last 12 seasons he’s competed on Tour. Clearly, Woods has always been able to win without his best tee shots.

Scrambling and Putting

Remember when Tiger had the yips? All those stupefying skulled and flubbed chips that made Woods look downright helpless? Neither do we. Tiger’s didn’t merely resuscitate his short game, he’s become a virtual up-and-down machine. Woods’ scrambling percentage (64.6) last season was his best since 2009 when he led the Tour at 68.2 percent. You can’t score if you can’t scramble, and some of Tiger’s most incredible shots this season came from the beaten path.

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When Woods was grabbing titles by the fistful, the ultimate benchmark for his success was on the greens. And for all the debate last season about his Scotty Cameron blade versus TaylorMade mallet, Woods still picked up over one-third of a stroke on the field with the flatstick. Woods made putts from 15 to 20 feet at a rate 1.7 times better than the Tour average, and his putting average (1.743) was virtually identical to his 2013 POY season (1.737) and 2008 major championship season (1.735). If Woods continues putting like this, major wins aren’t just more realistic again, they’re actually attainable.

The Narrative Going Forward

What Tiger did this year was extraordinary, with or without the victory at East Lake. The fact remains, however, Woods will be 43 when the 2019 season starts and no player has ever won more than one major after turning 43 years-old. Jack Nicklaus was 40 when he won his 16th and 17th championships. And after a six-year drought, Nicklaus was 46 when he won the 1986 Masters.

Aging golfers often have to rely on other areas of their game that weren’t a priority for them before, but 2018 was a testament to Woods’ resilience – not only in the long haul but during the ebb and flow of a pressure-packed round. Tiger has the speed, the short game, and most importantly the health to find major championship magic, and he’s given us reason to once again think the unthinkable.