The propensity of the elite professional golfers to look on the bright side never ceases to astound and Tiger Woods is the master.
If he wins the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational for the seventh time at Firestone Country Club this week, the game’s top player will claim his 70th PGA Tour victory and a staggering 21 individual World Golf Championships wins from 30 starts.
Yet Woods normally measures the relative success of a season in the number of majors he wins and while last weekend’s Buick Open triumph was his fourth victory of the campaign, his success rate is such that there has been more focus on his failures in the big ones than his remarkable comeback from knee surgery.
Having finished sixth in the Masters and the US Open and then missed cut in the Open at Turnberry last month, Woods is facing just his fourth “majorless” season since he turned professional and his first whitewash since 2004.
But with just a week to go before “Glory’s Last Shot”, a.k.a. the US PGA Championship at Hazeltine National, Woods preferred to reflect on his successes ather than his failiures.
“This year I think that being able to come back and play and be successful again has been a tremendous step,” Woods said. “If you had told me that I would have four wins by now, I couldn’t see it. Walking 18 holes was a challenge.
“Looking back at the (Accenture) Matchplay and where I was physically back then compared to now, it’s just night and day. To win and be as consistent as I have been the whole year is one of the things I am most proud of.”
Ireland has five men in action this week with Irish Open champion Shane Lowry joining Padraig Harrington, 2003 champion Darren Clarke and Ulstermen Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy in the 80-man field on a 7,400 yard course that has been softened by recent rains.
While Lowry is hoping to add to his well of professional experience before returning to the European Tour, the other four are here to hone their games ahead of the season’s final major in Minnesota.
For Harrington, the South Course at Firestone has been anything but a happy hunting ground for him with his best finish in ten appearances a share of tenth place in 1999.
Yet the Dubliner still managed a smile when he met Open champion Stewart Cink in the locker room with the American tickled pink that the Claret Jug he carried home to Atlanta in its protective case still bears the Dubliner’s initials.
“I laughed with Padraig that the case has a sticker with his initials P.H. and I told him that I am going to leave that sticker on," Cink revealed. “He congratulated me, which was nice, but he didn’t say anything to me about stopping him from winning three British Opens in a row. Maybe if he had of been in contention at the very end but he was very kind when I spoke to him yesterday.”
Harrington’s challenge this week is to drive the ball straight and putt well, which should be easier than ever this year.
“I think the golf course is definitely easier when it's soft, like all golf courses, but this one in particular,” he said. “The difficulty in this course starts with the speed of the greens, so softer greens means it's easier to get the ball close, it's easier to chip the ball close, so you're not going to have as many long putts and things like that and the chipping will be easier. It definitely makes the course easier having it wet.
“The greens are small enough, but I suppose that's an incentive to hit a few more drivers so you're not hitting such long shots into them. It's the sort of golf course you'd like to play every week. It would improve your game.”
McIlroy is one of nine players making their debuts here this week and the young Ulsterman loves what he’s seen of a course that favours the long hitter with the narrow fairways widening somewhat at the 300 yard mark. He now understands why Woods has been so successful here.
“It’s fantastic, such a good golf course,” the 20-year old enthused. “The greens are small and undulating. You look at it and think ‘this is pretty scorable’ but you hit it above the hole and you are trying to make a four and you are trying to make a par.
“He likes golf courses where you can shape it,” McIlroy said. “Yet it’s not like a tree-lined golf course where the trees are so dense. You can get away with it if you miss the fairways, even though you have to hit a great shot to get it back into play or get it onto the green. But even if you don’t hit it well you still get a chance to score.”
Measuring 7,400 yards with a strict par of 70, the course boasts just two par fives and a host of long par-fours in the 470-490 yard range.
“There’s not many birdie chances,” McIlroy added. “A couple of par fives, a couple of par fours around four hundred yards and that’s about it. I’d say 10-under is a great total this week.”
McIlroy will have a slight edge over some of his rivals thanks to his caddie JP Fitzgerald, who was on Darren Clarke’s bag when the Ulsterman lifted the title in 2003.
As for McDowell, the Ulsterman was 52nd on his debut here in 2002 and 56th last year. His season has been modest compared to last year, when he won twice and earned his Ryder Cup call up.
Reflecting on his season so far, he said: “Although the numbers don’t suggest that I have had a good season in comparison to last season, I am continuing to improve and get better in many departments. This game is always about disappointment. You are always disappointed. Even if you shoot 63 or 66, you think you should have done better. It is always could have, should have. You have just got to try and take the positives away all the time.”
Tiger Woods, no doubt, would agree.