There seems little doubt that Tiger Woods will wrap up his 79th PGA Tour victory and his eighth in the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational today at Firestone Country Club in Akron.
The world’s No. 1 golfer holds a 7-shot advantage going into the final round. When he owns at least a share of the 54-hole lead, his record is 52-4, 41-2 when he’s alone at the top.
Woods’ impending triumph — which would be his fifth of the year and his first since the May 12 Players Championship — could be a signal that he’s back to his old form.
To his old, intimidating form.
But some of his aura seems to have waned in the five years since Woods won a major title. Young guns on the PGA Tour watched the machine-like Woods grind up his peers in 1999 and 2000, watched him rack up 14 major victories between 1997 and 2008. Their days in front of the television as youngsters might be the reason they followed in his footsteps.
But most of them haven’t been as badly mangled on the golf course as contemporaries of Woods, who turns 38 in December. They’ve seen his fall from grace, his personal flaws exposed to the world. They’ve seen him go 749 days and 26 official tournaments without a victory before ending the drought at the Chevron World Challenge in December 2011.
Even those who have been chasing Woods since he turned pro in 1996 should be better equipped to handle his intimidating presence.
But are they?
Do they have the mojo, the game, the focus to challenge Woods, especially if he gets back on his major chase and follows up his dominating performance at Firestone with a victory next weekend in the PGA Championship?
U.S. Open champion Justin Rose believes that might be the case.
“He still carries the crowd, he still carries sort of an aura about him. But I think you get a little more used to it,” Rose said Saturday. “People learn from their mistakes and they learn from their successes and they’ve got a lot more of an armory and a skill set going into that situation than they did before.”
Rose, 33, believes Woods’ rivals have learned how to compete with Woods during the 17 years he has been on the tour.
“When you play with him, whether he’s playing well or not playing well, it’s a situation you get comfortable in,” Rose said. “Guys have adapted to him being around. When he came out, for four or five years, guys would get themselves into contention who had never played with him before and obviously it was a big deal and a different sort of feeling and probably more intimidating.
“Now the same guys who are getting in contention with him have been doing it six, seven, eight, nine, 10 times. I think that’s probably the biggest factor. It’s definitely a case if he’s on his game he’s tough to beat. But at the same time, everyone has closed the gap a little bit.”
Zach Johnson was born two months after Woods. It was Johnson that Woods defeated by a shot at the Chevron World Challenge to end his painful winless streak. Johnson sounded almost like Woods’ PGA Tour peers during Woods’ glory days, like he was girding himself for another run of Woods’ dominance.
“We’re the same age. That’s hard for me to fathom,” Johnson said. “He’s two months older than I am. That stinks. I guess at the same time, you can asterisk your resume and say ‘I played in the Tiger era.’ In that respect, I guess it’s good.”
Johnson said the old Woods really wasn’t that long ago.
“Are we better prepared? I don’t know. I think the game continues to grow and get deeper and add more parity. As far as that goes, certainly,” Johnson said.
“But it just seems like there’s a ceiling and the only person who’s able to keep pushing it up is him. It may not be in strokes or wins, but it’s everything. He has the machine to do that. It’s a rarity. It’s a once-in-a-generation type thing.”
Bubba Watson, a frequent practice partner of Woods, doesn’t believe Woods has an intimidation factor. He said it’s more that Woods’ rivals don’t handle the pressure of winning when they’re in contention with him.
“His ability is so good — I think he’s the best ever,” Watson said. “When I’m trying to win my fifth and he’s trying to win his 79th, he’s not as nervous as I get. Don’t get me wrong, you know he’s going to play good. But you’re battling yourself.
“You’re trying for your first win, let’s say in Akron. You’re battling Akron, you’re battling yourself, you’re battling all the other scores. You’re not even worried about Tiger, you’re worried about yourself.”
Some in the next generation like Keegan Bradley, 27, say they love to play with Woods. Johnson said there’s an “osmosis” factor when paired with Woods, that his mere presence raises others’ games.
“The young guns, they keep on coming. I think once they get used to playing with him, the better,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of good young players, it’s just whether or not they can play with him. He has that aura. There’s only so many guys who have that.”
Rose knows Woods is good for the game. Rose conceded that winning with Woods in the field means more, especially if it comes in a head-to-head battle.
But as the Bridgestone Invitational comes to what looks like an inevitable conclusion, there’s a feeling that Woods is rolling again. There’s a touch of fear in the air.
“You do want him at his best and that’s the opportunity you do relish,” Rose said. “But it is definitely a case of be careful what you wish for because he has that ability to mow down a field. Not many players have that capability.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.