Woods has to back up big talk on course
Tiger Woods was all smiles as he signed for his closing 66 in the WGC Championship at Doral. It gave the former world number one his first top-10 finish of the year and had him nodding enthusiastically when asked whether he liked his chances for the Masters.
His fine round of golf included seven birdies, five of which were converted from inside six feet of the hole. So was this the round that told us that the 35-year-old American is at last back to his best and ready to challenge for the first major of the year?
Discount a 14-time major champion at your peril but it is just as likely that this six-under-par round will prove another false dawn.
Woods has had several impressive finishes recently. There was a 67 at the Barclays in August and a 68 in Boston the following week. Then there was a 68 in Shanghai at the final WGC event of 2010, followed seven days later by a 65 in the Australian Masters.
And there were plenty of positive quotes coming from his mouth.
"Very close," "If I just putt well I'm right there," "I'm pleased with the progress," were some of his encouraging assessments of his revamped game.
Yet the debate about the state of his game and the merits of the swing changes he is making under the tutelage of Sean Foley still rages.
Will Foley (right) steer Woods back to his best. Photo: Getty
Lee Trevino, winner of six majors, suggests Woods should ditch his teacher because it is clear he remains a very long way from being at his consistent best.
And it is also worth noting that the encouraging final rounds I highlighted earlier were compiled while Woods had no chance of winning the tournament. This was also the case with the 66 at Doral that has had so many observers purring with admiration.
Woods remains upbeat. "Overall, it feels really good," he said. "My trajectory is becoming better. My shapes of my shots are getting tighter. The driver is still not quite there. I'm not quite shaping the golf ball like I want to yet. But I'm hitting it flush again, which is good, so that's just a matter of time before that comes around."
And does he like his Masters chances? "Oh yeah," he said.
Woods realises he needs to talk up his game as much as he can in order to maintain the aura he built up with his brilliance on the golf course. That is because he knows - and he always has - that his aura and reputation can help him win tournaments.
As Johnny Miller put it so superbly before Woods destroyed a five-shot deficit to eclipse Sean O'Hair at the 2009 Bay Hill Championship: "He is the sun and you are the butter when you are with Woods in the final pairing."
That 2009 victory for Woods came at a time when his final rounds counted for something, when his putting stroke was the envy of the rest and the notion that he might switch putters mid-tournament was unthinkable.
To gauge how Woods is faring currently, it is worth a look at his PGA Tour statistics. They tell us he averages 1.78 putts per green this year - and there are 99 players performing better in that regard at the moment.
Of course, you can turn stats to win any argument.
It is worth noting that Woods has played only two US Tour strokeplay events this year. His Greens In Regulation figures are much improved, too, which, in turn, means he will be putting from longer distances and thus less likely to single putt.
Even so, Woods lies 102nd for success with putts inside five feet - damning evidence of his current inconsistency with the short stick.
As for the long ones, he still cannot break into the top 190 for driving (distance and accuracy combined) - as was the case for the whole of the 2010 season.
As we know, Woods is rebuilding his swing and tinkering with his short game to make himself a better player. And he believes Foley can help him achieve his goal.
Foley is trading blows in the media with Hank Haney, a former tutor of Woods, over the path the player has taken. Haney, who split with Woods soon after the player had returned to action at last year's Masters following the player's well-documented personal problems, points out that his former charge won 45% of the events he played and claimed a top-10 finish 85% of the time during the last three years he was his coach.
There is no doubt that Woods is still piecing his life back together on and off the golf course, while a new generation of players have caught up and, for the moment at least, overtaken the man who once so utterly dominated the game.
Since long-time rival Phil Mickelson won last year's Masters, all the majors and World Golf Championships events have been won by players younger than Woods, who celebrated his 35th birthday in December. Nick Watney, who was victorious at Doral, is 29, which is exactly the average age of the winners of these elite tournaments.
Kaymer succeeded Lee Westwood as world number one. Photo: Getty
At 33, Luke Donald is the oldest of the winners, while, perhaps most ominously for Woods, the youngest is US PGA champion Martin Kaymer, who is 26 and has already risen to the top of the world rankings.
The German's game and unflappable temperament suggest he will be hard to shift from top spot. If Woods - now number five in the world - is to reassume his position at the head of the game, he has little time to waste.
He has already lost more ranking points from 2009/10 than any other player and, so far this year, has gained fewer than anyone else in the top 10.
Of course, the season is still young and the first major is yet to take place. Were Woods to claim a fifth green jacket at the Masters - his last win at Augusta came in 2005 - then it would change everything.
But he needs to string four good rounds together and come up with a low one when in contention. It is a very long time since he has achieved that.
Perhaps he will at Bay Hill next week. He has won there six times before, including on his last two appearances in 2008 and 2009. His demeanour as he departed Miami suggests he believes it may be possible but the hard facts indicate a renaissance is unlikely.