— The curtain came down on the PGA Tour season Sunday. Phil Mickelson captured the Tour Championship in Atlanta, took home a check for $1 million. Tiger Woods finished second, got a check for $10 million. It was a classic FedExCup finish.
Ultimately, where Woods is concerned, the ambiguous end to the 2009 schedule was especially appropriate. For the first time in four years, he completed his PGA Tour work without winning a major championship. By his own decree, majors are the reason for the season.
A year and a half removed from his victory at Wounded Knee, aka the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, Woods remains anchored at 14 in his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus and his cache of 18 professional majors. But if Woods' performance these past few months is to be characterized in disappointing terms, it is only under the distorted scrutiny of his own standards.
It is probably safe to say no other player on the PGA Tour will have a “disappointing” season like it, ever. In the big picture, it might just be Woods' most remarkable season.
It was unusual in many respects. After eight months away, after reconstruction and rehabilitation, after the arrival of child No. 2, how would the game’s No. 1 fare? No one knew, including Woods himself. Ernie Els had a similar knee procedure in 2005 and needed 18 months to feel fit again. The South African still hasn't completely recovered his game, with just one PGA Tour win and two European PGA Tour victories since the injury.
Then again, they don't call him “Big Easy” for nothing. What Woods has been able to do, in almost seamless contrast, testifies to a different level of focus and commitment. After a tie for 17th at the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship in early March, Woods played in 16 events and finished ninth or better in 14 of them.
He won six times and collected $10.5 million in earnings, before the $10 million FedEx bonus. Woods’ stroke average of 68.05 led the PGA Tour, as did his all-around ranking of 133 — the all-around number computes a player’s performances in all of the significant PGA Tour statistics. Over his last seven starts, Woods had three wins and three runner-ups. Milk shakes should have such consistency.
Among current players on the PGA Tour, only Vijay Singh (2004) has had a season in which he won as many as six times. Woods has done it five other times, including nine wins in 2000, eight in 1999 and 2006 and seven in 2007. He suffers only in comparison to himself.
That said, his return was marked by atypical moments. There was a stunning bogey at No. 15 on Monday at Wetpage, which came after back-to-back birdies put Woods in striking position at a soggy U.S. Open. Instead of winning his 15th major, he tied for sixth.
Woods never had experienced a weekend off in 14 appearances at the British Open, a championship he has won three times. But Woods missed the cut in July at Turnberry, which was only slightly less shocking than 59-year old Tom Watson nearly winning.
At the PGA Championship, Woods was in charge through three rounds and 67 holes. Woods with the lead after three rounds at a major was supposed to be end of story, as certain as death, taxes and Johnny Miller jabs. Woods had won all 14 majors he led after 54 holes, 47 of the 50 PGA Tour events he led after 54 holes. Then someone named Y.E. Yang chipped in for eagle on No. 14 at Hazeltine, made birdie at No. 18, and the glass was shattered.
There were more Kryptonite sightings during the FedExCup playoffs. At The Barclays, Woods had a 7-foot putt on the 72nd hole to take the lead, a roll he makes like its a bodily function, a pressurized circumstance he owns. And, of course … he missed. No really, no misprint. Tiger Woods missed and Heath Slocumb didn't.
Again at East Lake, Woods carved out front-runner space during the first two days, territory he rarely concedes. But in 2009, Woods was not infallible. He was surprisingly mortal at times, even beatable. Perhaps, going forward, that will be reassuring to the competition. Perhaps, at least in the mind of swing sensei Hank Haney, it demands some perspective.
“I think the consistency of his play has been great so far with the exception of the British,” Haney said, before the Tour Championship. “(Six) wins is certainly pretty good, considering where he was a year ago, just learning to walk again. People tend to forget that golf is a very difficult game. Besides being difficult, there is a lot of luck in the game that maybe people don't really totally understand.
“Bounces, wind gusts, putts lipping out, tee times, having good weeks at the right time. Sometimes it just isn't your week.”
Problem is, Woods has tampered with perspective, bent it out of shape. In years past, he has made it look easy, made it look predictable, made it look like his week, every week.
“Winning, that's the ultimate goal,” Woods said after running away with the BMW Championship to set the table for his FedExCup win. “And to play as well as I have of late and not get the 'W's' has been a little bit frustrating, no doubt, because I've been so close. It's just been a matter of making a couple putts here and there and I would have won the tournaments.”
This PGA Tour season was unusual in a number of ways. It included horrific tragedies, impacting the families of Ken Green and Chris Smith, and difficult challenges for the Mickelson family. It included four majors notable more for the players who did not win them: Kenny Perry (Masters), Ricky Barnes (U.S. Open), Tom Watson (British Open) and Woods (PGA).
Eventually the season concluded with an uplifting victory for Mickelson, one that bodes well for 2010. But in the end, with or without a major, by any standards, it was a year that belonged to Woods.
“I think there are many ways to measure greatness,” Haney said. “Winning tournaments is one way to define greatness, winning majors is another way. I personally think that consistency is a measure of greatness — making cuts, finishing in the top 10, finishing in the top 5, finishing in the top 3 and winning on a consistent basis.
“Considering where he came from with his ACL injury and the difficult rehab, I don't know how you would describe his year. Personally, I am reluctant to say anything. If I say nothing, I get ripped. If I say something, I get ripped for making excuses or sugarcoating things.”
Truth is, nothing needs to be said. It was a different kind of year for Tiger Woods, but it was his year nonetheless.