HONOLULU — The question was as much rhetorical as it was cynical.
Matt Kuchar was playing alone on a slow Monday in Shanghai last fall, holding court on all things golf in between shots when the topic turned to Tiger Woods. Out of the game for nine months, Woods had just begun to post video of his swing.
Woods was still a week away from announcing he would return to competition in the Bahamas after recovering from a fourth back surgery.
“Do you think guys today believe they could have taken on Tiger at his best?” Kuchar asked.
He didn’t offer an answer, perhaps knowing that just like comparing generations, there are no answers, only speculation.
Besides, what could anyone say?
“You’d be stupid to say you couldn’t. You’d be doubting yourself,” U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka said. “I watched it growing up. I knew exactly how good he was. I wish I could have played against him. I think it would be cool to compare yourself to it.”
The question now is whether it’s too late to find out.
Woods begins the real test in his latest comeback this week in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, the public course along the Pacific bluffs that once served as his personal playground. He won eight times as a pro at Torrey Pines, including the 2008 U.S. Open.
He looked healthy — and strong — in the Bahamas, when he tied for ninth at the Hero World Challenge against an 18-man field. Scouting reports from the elite in golf who have played with him over the last few months have been glowing. While it’s doubtful that Woods — now 42 and with eight surgeries behind him — can ever get back to who he was on the golf course, it’s enough to wonder how close he can get.
Only then will today’s stars get an idea of how they could fare.
“Truth be told, I’d love to have these young guys that are dominating the game have a piece — just one year — of what we experienced,” Zach Johnson said.
Johnson is among 78 players who have been runner-up to Woods on the PGA Tour. He finished eight shots back in 2007 at the Tour Championship.
Stewart Cink was intrigued by the question.
He competed against Woods his entire career and knows how difficult it could be. Cink tied for second when Woods won Bay Hill by 11 shots. He also was on the wrong end of an 8-and-7 outcome when Woods won his third Match Play title.
“I’ve played with Tiger when he was playing the best he’s ever played, and it was a real treat to see it — although it wasn’t a treat to be humiliated by his dominance,” Cink said. “I’ve also played with some of these younger guys. They’re special players. I would love for the game to give us Tiger getting back to where he was so we could see what he would do against Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy.
“The golf world would get a real kick out of it.”
Thomas, Dustin Johnson and Spieth are the last three players to be voted PGA Tour player of the year. They are major champions.
Could they have taken him?
“My self-confidence and self-belief would say, ‘Yes,’” Thomas said.
Then he paused and began to smile before adding with a chuckle, “But everything I’ve watched and everything I’ve heard … no.”
Thomas learned last year that he didn’t need his absolute best stuff to win tournaments. He’s not sure anything but his best would have worked against Woods.
Dustin Johnson, the No. 1 player in the world, has 17 victories on the PGA Tour. Woods played in only one of those events, the 2010 BMW Championship.
“If I’m playing my best? Yeah, I’d take him,” Johnson said. “But over the course of a season? For nine years, 10 years in a row? He kept that level up for 10 years. That’s very, very sick. My best versus his best, I think it’s going to be neck and neck. But he was playing at his best for 10 years.”
Spieth, realizing there is no way of knowing because of how much the game has changed in 10 years, found his answer in numbers.
There are a lot of numbers when it comes to Tiger.
Spieth had his best year in 2015 when his five PGA Tour victories included two majors. Woods had years that good or better in 2000, 2002, 2005 and 2006.
“You get out here and you get caught up in the world ranking, what you’re doing compared with those around you,” Spieth said. “It’s not until you look at data, or statistics, where I’ve started to see, ‘Wow, that was absolutely incredible.’ The win percentage is the most amazing stat of his career.”
Until Woods had his first back surgery in April 2014, his rate of winning on the PGA Tour was 26 percent. Spieth is the most reasonable comparison because of his age and the schedule he keeps. He already has 11 wins and two majors at age 24.
His rate of winning is 9 percent.
“It’s absurd,” Spieth said. “What he was able to do year in and year out … I don’t think it’s going to happen again.”
But to get just a glimpse of it, would that be asking too much?
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