Tour Confidential: Breaking Down Tiger Woods’s Return, Chance of Winning in ’17

December 5, 2016
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Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com.

1. A week ago in this space, when looking ahead to Tiger’s return to competition at the Hero World Challenge, the consensus among the panelists was that Woods would finish several shots over par and in last place. Instead he finished at four under — thanks in part to a second-round 65 — led the tournament in birdies (24) and beat two players in the elite 17-man field. Which part of Tiger’s game most exceeded your expectations?

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: The rhythm of his swing, the fact that he seems to be making a more natural, less manipulated swing, one that can (he hopes, I’m sure) hold up for the next decade or so.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): Like a lot of people, I started out watching his chips and pitches with my hands partly over my eyes, horror movie style, and (though there were definitely some dicey moments around the greens for him) I was somewhat surprised not to have to keep my hands there throughout the entire weekend. But his iron game was probably the most surprising, and the closest he gave us to the Tiger of old.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): The ability to score. Making that many birdies is impressive for a player in top form, but that’s sick for a guy coming off a 15-month layoff. It speaks to the number of quality shots that Tiger hit.

BAMBERGER: Tiger Should Be Encouraged, But His Greatest Challenge Is Just Beginning

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Exactly, Mark. Who would’ve thought at the start of the week that Tiger would lead this field in birdies? He still has a long road ahead, but there were reasons for optimism this week — specifically, his irons and his putter. It was one week, but there are more positive signs for Tiger now than at any point in 2015.

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF (@joepassov): Based on the consensus of our prognostications last week in this space, I would say that ALL parts of Tiger’s game exceeded expectations. Specifically for me, it’s the number of birdie putts he poured in. A healthy putter can free up Tiger from worrying less about what comes before. He can make a few mistakes as he gets back into tournament grind mode, and to know the flatstick will make up for the occasional error will really help.

Mike Adams, GOLF Top 100 Teacher, director of instruction at Medalist GC & Hamilton Farm GC: Tiger played as expected. He is a champion knocking the rust off. He still doesn’t own his swing yet, but when he does he will return to the winner’s circle. Look for Tiger to contend at Augusta.

2. What’s the biggest difference between this version of Woods and the Woods we last saw in competition in August 2015?

Sens: The consensus was that his transition was much smoother, his finish fuller, and his pass at the ball less violent looking, and there’s no arguing with that. But he also looked slimmed down in a healthy way, and not like a guy who looked like he was going to slip a disc if he turned his head too quickly.

Godich: The swing is noticeably less violent, and the putting stroke is much more fluid.

Ritter: He swing is certainly smoother. Also, Sunday was a rough go all the way around, but there’s something about Woods and that Scotty Cameron putter that just feels right.

Bamberger: He has lowered expectations. He’s more modest, more relaxed, more like a regular guy. None of that might be good for his golf but might be good for Tiger Woods, human being.

Passov: Tiger did mention he’s coming off an illness, which may have made him appear a little thinner than he looked in 2015, but he also commented that he can’t put his body through the grueling workouts of the past. Less bulk, some renewed flexibility–smoother, less pressure and torque–I have to believe this bodes well.

Adams: Tiger is finally healthy. Once he gets his sea legs under him he will be like the Tiger of 2013 when he won five times.

3. Among the many observers impressed by Woods’s play was the tournament winner, Hideki Matsuyama. “Only Tiger could take a year and a half off and put up the numbers that he’s putting up this week,” Matsuyama said after the third round. “I don’t care how many strokes I’m leading over him, I still worry about him, fear him.” Do you suppose other players feel the same way?

Godich: Not for a minute. The fear factor went out the door years ago.

Bamberger: Totally agree, Mark. You fear somebody who buries every 10-footer. That hasn’t been Tiger for at least seven years. Hideki, as per usual, is being polite.

MORE: After One Start, Tiger Rockets Up World Ranking  |  Watch Tiger’s 7 Best Shots from the Week  |  Best Photos of Tiger’s Return

Ritter: There may be a few veterans that Tiger used to pummel in his prime who suffer flashbacks. But I doubt Woods carries an ounce of intimidation factor with the new generation on Tour — he’ll have to re-earn it. More than anything, I think guys recognize that Woods’s return is big for their sport, and they’re excited to have him back.

Sens: I’m sure Hideki stands in rightful awe of what Tiger accomplished in his prime. But the idea that he fears him seems like a stretch to me. Sounds more like a smart guy saying the right and polite thing about the tournament host. As Jeff says, Tiger’s fellow pros are well aware of what he means to the game. They’ve got to respect what he’s accomplished. But fear him? Let’s put them all on that lie detector from the Zurich ads. If they said they were afraid, I’d expect the needle to go haywire.

Passov: Yes, yes, yes and yes. Good for Hideki. It’s merely a measure of huge respect to say what he said about Tiger and the way he said it. Nobody dominates golf right this minute, so it’s certainly not an actual fear, but there was a time not too long ago that fellow pros simply acknowledged in disbelief that Tiger was doing things that only Tiger could do. It was a mix of respect and awe, and you have to tip your cap to that.

Adams: The Tiger Mystique has tarnished some, but let him get himself in contention and they will all be paying attention.

4. Among the new additions to Tiger’s bag last week was the Scotty Cameron putter with which he won 13 of his 14 major titles. When asked after the second round when he made the move, Woods said, “I’d say the day we [Nike] got out of the hard-goods side.” Which seems to suggest that Woods couldn’t wait to switch back. Did that remark surprise you?

Ritter: A little, because Woods is usually more of a politician when handling that kind of question. It speaks to how optimistic he feels about his putting, and he showed some flashes last week. If you’re looking for reasons that Tiger will come all the way back to playing winning golf, it starts with that trusty Scotty Cameron.

Bamberger: Absolutely. Why would Tiger Woods ever use a putter that he did not think was the best possible putter he could use? I must be woefully naive but I would have assumed that Tiger’s highest priority for selecting his 14 clubs would be only one thing, performance.

Sens: Agreed, Jeff. It was a shade impolitic, especially for a guy who is so painfully careful not to be in public. But it was also refreshing. We heard enough canned quotes from Tiger over the years. Nice to hear him speaking more frankly.

Godich: The candidness was on display all week. What a refreshing change.

Passov: No, that comment didn’t surprise me. One of my eyebrows may have arched slightly skyward, but for all of Tiger’s classic reveal-nothing answers, he likes to toss out a “Did-he-just-say-that?” comment now and again, just to remind everybody that he’s still capable of doing so.

Adams: Rory said the same thing. The Nike putter was a nice-looking putter, but the German Stainless Steel in the Scotty Tiger and Rory are putting with is softer and has better feel.

5. Given what you saw from Tiger this week, what are your expectations for him in 2017?

Ritter: It’s all about health and nerves. If he can avoid injury and practice as much as he desires, I’d expect the sloppy mistakes he made in the Bahamas to slowly disappear. Then it’s all between the ears. Overall, he exceeded my expectations this week, and I’m now cautiously optimistic he can come all the way back to winning golf. I’m not ready to say MAJOR-winning, but a routine Tour stop? Health permitting, I can see him getting there in 2017.

Sens: Yes, he made a ton of birdies and had a much better showing than a lot of us expected. But I’m not holding my breath waiting for any big wins. As Jeff says, health and nerves. I’d put nerves in bold italics. Though it wasn’t the fright show of chip yips that we saw in Arizona last year, there were enough chunks around the greens to suggest that there’s some lingering mental fragility, and I’m not convinced that’s something that’s going to go away. As Seve said, once a guy loses his nerve.

Godich: I want to see him stay healthy. And though he’s walking a fine line, I’d like to see him play more. That’s the best way for him to get the rust off.

Bamberger: He could maybe contend now and again. He could win. But he will have to be absolutely on his game and needs others to make mistakes. It won’t be what it used to be like. It will be more like the Players in 2013, when he made mistakes but Sergio made more.

Passov: Tiger seemed to have sufficient length, recovery skills, shot arsenal and putting all working for much of the Hero event. Funny, this performance, in scoring anyway, mirrors his August 2015 Greensboro results, when he put himself at the top after the third round, then collapsed in the final round, only to recover near the end to finish T10. So you’re all probably right about this. Stay healthy, pace yourself properly, figure out how to make it right and have the nerves hold up in the final round–that’s key. The incredible scrutiny that will accompany every time he’s close–or every time he even tees it up, is daunting, but hey, he’s Tiger.

Adams: I expect to see a couple of wins. It all depends on how soon he owns his swing.

6. With four wins in his last five starts, is Hero champ Hideki Matsuyama the new holder of the ‘Best Player Without a Major’ title?

Ritter: At this moment? Absolutely. But if it’s a lifetime achievement award, I still hand it to Sergio, who’s sort of on an island now that DJ and Stenson have broken through.

Sens: Since Sergio himself has said that he’s not convinced he has what it takes to win a major, I think we can strip him of that title and pass it on to Hideki, who I’m sure will be thrilled to have it, just like everyone else who has ever held it has been.

Bamberger: On the right-now list, yes. In this era, Sergio is way, way ahead of him.

Godich: Well, he is the highest-ranked player in the world without one. The putter has always held him back; however, based on the work he’s put in with the short stick (and the results that he’s produced), I’d venture to say that Hideki will bag a major sooner rather than later.

Passov: And I’ll add Lee Westwood to Sergio in terms of career achievements/without a major. For current World Ranking purposes, however, yes, it’s Matsuyama, but I don’t even think in those terms when a guy is only 24 years old.

Adams: Hideki is a great player and he will win majors, but the best player without a major is still Sergio Garcia.