Tour Confidential: What Should We Expect from Tiger’s Return?

November 28, 2016

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. Tiger Woods is scheduled to make his much-anticipated return to competition this week at his own event, the Hero World Challenge, at the Albany resort in the Bahamas. Given the setting, format (no cut) and field size (18 players) are a long way from a PGA Tour event, how much can we truly learn about the state of Tiger’s game this week?

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine (@JoshSens): Is it possible for Tiger to waggle a club without our reading significance into it? Even snippets of him smacking balls on a home simulator get scrutinized like the Zapruder film. I’ll leave the swing analyses to others, but I think we can use this weekend as a reasonable barometer of his mental game. Who would have thought, back in Tiger’s prime, that we’d ever be worried about how he’d handle the pressure of the moment? But that’s where we are. Forget the swing changes and the injuries. Tiger is in a battle with himself. This weekend should give us a good sense of where he stands in that fight.

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Totally agree that Tiger’s return is first and foremost a chance to assess his nerves. His back may be healed, but what about the chip yips? Also, obviously, we’ll watch to see how healthy he looks and how aggressively he swings. His scores this week are unimportant compared to these other factors.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): I wouldn’t say they’re completely unimportant. If he posts numbers in the mid- to high-70s, that’s just more emotional scar tissue. I’m as interested in his press conference as anything. Last year on this occasion was the most glum and fatalistic Tiger has ever sounded, publicly. I’m as curious about his head as his swing.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I agree, Alan. He has indicated in various ways over the past 18-plus months that this is a new chapter in his life. He’s always setting the table for something, and now we learn more. Is his goal here to be Tiger Woods, Dude at Large, or Tiger Woods, golfer?

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF Magazine (@joepassov): Tiger, when he was Tiger, always had the Jordan-esque killer instinct, the unshakable belief that he was going to get it done when he needed to. I’m very curious to see whether we’ll see any of that going forward. I’m not too focused on scores or mechanics. He just needs to play competitive golf again and this will be a great start.

Shane Bacon, golf analyst, Fox Sports (@shanebacon): JP, one thing I always found interesting during that last season with Kobe Bryant is that the guy just didn’t have that same killer feeling as he did in seasons past. I’m with you on watching that. Say Tiger does toss up a couple of rounds in the high 60s. Is he staring at guys or still smiling, knowing 62-63 just isn’t in the cards? I think back to the anti-driver guy at Olympic in 2012 when he just didn’t have that extra gear after being tied for the lead after 36-holes and wonder what will eventually happen if he is ever in contention again. Nice guy or stone-cold golfer? The first step in that journey (hopefully) begins Thursday.

2. Pull out your crystal ball and tell us where Woods will finish and what he’ll shoot over four rounds.

RITTER: I’ll say 16th place, 6 over.

SENS: This may be a chummy gathering in the tropics, but it’s a high quality field. I say Tiger finishes dead last, a handful over par.

SHIPNUCK: I’ll say DFL, 8 over.

BAMBERGER: I’ll see your DFL and will go for 54 holes and a tender something. But more likely he’ll win. (After this election, can we PLEASE get out of the prognostication business?)

PASSOV: If the wind blows, he’ll be even par and beat a handful of folks, using his repertoire of knockdowns. If it’s as calm as it was last year when something like 25-under took the trophy, it’ll be tougher on Tiger, who may not have the scoring shots down pat, or the putter working just yet.

BACON: Unless one of the guys decides to play opposite handed, I don’t see how a guy that hasn’t played competitive golf in over a year has a chance of beating anyone in this field. I’ll go 6-over for the week (three rounds over par, one under).

3. The Olympic Golf Course in Rio, where green fees for residents start at $74, is struggling to attract business less than four months after playing host to the Olympic golf competition, according to a gloomy report by Agence France-Presse. Is this a predictable development in a country that has never shown much of an appetite for golf, or could more be done to make the terrific Gil Hanse-designed course a destination for locals?   

RITTER: Most Brazilians don’t play golf and hardly care about the sport. That price point — $74 — is simply too high. How about $20 tee times? What about starting a junior clinic that’s free for kids under 18 and gives their parents deep discounts on tee times? The only hope is to get creative, and get that price down.

SENS: Agreed, Jeff. A high-end public course was always going to be a tough sell in a country that greets golf with a collective yawn. Even $20 is probably too much to ask. But free clinics for kids would be a good start, if you combined that with other incentives, like lunch and transportation to the course. Anything short of that and that old song about using this course to help grow the game in Brazil is going to remain just that.

BAMBERGER: Absolutely. If your course is empty at $74, lower the price. But much more significant is to find a way to develop local golfers, and bring existing golfers in. This is a one-course town dilemma that the USGA and the PGA of America see in a national way. There are millions of Brazilians who have the golf gene in them, they just don’t know it yet.

SHIPNUCK: Before I left Rio I was already planning to return to investigate this very thing. I think the Olympic Course is the most important incubator the game has ever had to answer the question, Can golf be exported to a country where there is no tradition? Given the global stage the course enjoyed, and the vast amount of money in the neighborhood where it is situated (reputedly, Barra de Tijuaca has the highest real estate prices in South America), if the Olympic Course fails we probably have a definitive answer. The best-case scenario is probably the PGA Tour buys the course and turns it into the Sawgrass of the Latinoamerica Tour.

PASSOV: A sad report, for sure, but not all that surprising, as you’ve all noted. I’m hoping that the ruling bodies act on Alan’s suggestion, whether it’s the PGA Tour, or the whole alphabet soup — Augusta, USGA, R&A, PGA of America included. The design was so expertly produced, it would be criminal to see it vanish. Keep it, and keep your commitment to keep growing the game, even it happens to be in Brazil.

BACON: Americans are salivating at the idea of a high-end golf course that costs less than $100 a round, but we are obviously seeing what the price point is and need to adjust. Make this golf course a mecca for junior golf in the area. Have multiple programs a day, make it known that the place where golf rejoined the Olympics wants your kid to come and enjoy themselves and hope that people listen. Golf is begging for young kids to join and what better spot for that type of thing to happen than the reintroduction of golf to the biggest global sporting event in the world?

4. Speaking of Olympic golf, it seems we might see a format shakeup at the 2020 Games in Tokyo. “We like individual competition,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said last week, “but … we might recommend a couple of changes on certain days where we do a different type of competition.” How would you spice up the format?

RITTER: We’ve gone through it before, but Olympic golf is ripe for a team format. I think you can stage an individual competition and a team event concurrently — all countries that sent one golfer have a shot at individual gold, and those with two players can also compete in a two-person team event while simultaneously playing for an individual medal.

SENS: Right, Jeff. The format could be expanded and/or tweaked without having to add to the demands on players’ schedules (always a concern these days). At the risk of making it seem too much like a silly season event, what about a mixed pair competition?

SHIPNUCK: No doubt a team competition would be fun. I hope it happens. But I believe stroke play will still be used to determine the individual medals. Even if you do 36 holes in one day and compress that into 3 days, you’re still adding 2-3 more days of competition for team play. Given how hard it was to get top players excited about Rio, do we want to make a bigger ask going forward?

BAMBERGER: I don’t think you need the lone wolf individual medal to make Olympic golf meaningful. I think the opposite. The whole thing should be contested in two-person team format.

PASSOV: I’m with Michael. I would return to the old World Cup of Golf format: Four rounds of stroke play with two-man teams. That way you get to award individual medals and team medals, as they do in so many other sports.

BACON: Make golf coed. Do it. Golf needs something unique to make it matter more than other sports (especially a team-style formatted sport), and golf makes the most sense. Two-player teams, the top-two ranked in the world from both tours, and let them go at it. What would be cooler than seeing Jordan Spieth and Michelle Wie sharing a podium?

5. Peggy Kirk Bell, a charter member of the LPGA, one of the first women inducted into the World Golf Teachers Hall of Fame, and co-owner with her husband of the Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club in Pinehurst, N.C., died last week at the age of 95. Her influence was vast but where did Bell leave her greatest mark on the game?

SENS: As accomplished as she was as a player, her more enduring legacy is as a pioneering teacher, the sort of influence that only expands as it gets passed down through the generations. The ladies “golfari” program she established at Pine Needles being just one example.

RITTER: The “golfari” program, and her advocacy for the women’s game, may be her greatest legacy,, but I’ve also enjoyed learning more about her — like her games with Babe Didrikson Zaharias — through some of the touching tributes this week. She lived a golfing life, and she will be missed.

SHIPNUCK: Pine Needles is one of the underrated gems in all of golf. I think that’s a heckuva monument to leave behind.

BAMBERGER: That, and her incredible warmth and energy. I never had the pleasure of meeting her, but from everything I heard, she had some Arnold in her — you felt her presence and she made you feel better and like golf more. What a life and legacy.

PASSOV: Michael, I’m on your bandwagon again. I was fortunate to have spent some quality time with her a few years back, and she had the magic. Wonderful player, but an even better advocate for golf — as a pioneering tour player, teacher, storyteller — and she was even a better person. Fantastic personality and a twinkle in her eye. Just being in her presence was fun.

BACON: You guys all nailed it with Peggy, so I just want to remind everybody that has ever picked up a golf club of this quote from her: “Power was nothing without timing in golf.” Hit it hard all you want, but if your timing is off, you’re done. She will be missed.

6. The holiday shopping season is upon us. If you had only $25 to spend, what gift would you buy a fellow golfer this year?

RITTER: No need to overthink it: for $25, any golfer would appreciate a couple new sleeves of balls.

SENS: Balls are a good call. But I’ll go with a round at a local muni. Four hours of good clean fun, and you’re supporting a sector of the game that could always use a boost. For all the talk of the barriers to entry being too high in golf, greens fees aren’t the toughest hurdles. There are plenty of bargains out there. Even around the exorbitant Bay Area where I live, I can play several munis for $25 or less.

SHIPNUCK: You could get two good paperbacks for that. So many good one to choose from: Down the Fairway; Men in Green; The Bogey Man; Dead Solid Perfect; Ancestral Links; The Swinger; A Golfer’s Life; Golf Dreams; Hogan; The Autobiography of an Average Golfer; The Golf Omnibus…must I go on?

BAMBERGER: EXCELLENT list, Alan! That, or two shares of Callaway stock with the hope that Trump is a peacetime president who is good for golf.

PASSOV: Two subscriptions to GOLF Magazine for loved ones. I think they still throw in golf balls or tote bags or something that sweetens the deal. Please.

BACON: If you are a cart golfer, Monument Golf makes a wrap that goes around your rangefinder that magnetically attaches to your golf cart and forever saves you the pain of finding a spot for your yardage device. It’s the best money I’ve ever spent for anything in golf and it isn’t even close.