All eyes on Tiger: What we’ve learned 36 holes into Woods’s comeback

January 26, 2018

LA JOLLA, Calif. — Here are seven things we’ve learned (so far) about Tiger Woods’s comeback, following up-and-down rounds of 72-71 that will have him playing the weekend at Torrey Pines:

1. Tiger may not be as stressed about his game as the rest of us are

While the golf world is collectively losing its mind over Tiger being back, the man himself seems quite relaxed. On Thursday, there was a backup on the fourth tee, so Woods wandered over to the edge of the cliff to take in the view. A small gathering of typists was nearby so he engaged in a discussion of whether the creatures frolicking in the waves where sharks or dolphins. (They were dolphins.) Then he recounted in great detail the occasion, years ago, when the cameraman in the CBS blimp spied, on the beach below, a couple of lovebirds enjoying themselves. Tiger was cracking up the whole time he was telling the story. Then he stepped to the tee and bombed a drive to the left edge of the fairway, 15 yards past Charley Hoffman, who is not a short knocker. 

2. Tiger can still grind

The back-nine of his second round was about as tense as a Friday afternoon in January can be. After playing his first nine hole holes (having begun on the North Course’s 10th hole) in two over par, Woods and everybody else knew he needed a rally to have a chance of making the cut. Birdies at the 1st and 5th had the crowd in full-throat, but on the 6th hole Woods whipsawed a drive miles right. Still well short of the green after his recovery shot, Tiger summoned an impossibly towering pitch that stopped stone-dead on the devilishly firm green to save par.

“That was special,” said Charley Hoffman, citing that shot as Woods’s best of the round. “That’s who he is.” 

A gorgeous up-and-down on the short par-4 7th hole was erased by a too-firm chip that led to a bogey on 8, turning the par-5 9th into a do-or-die birdie for Woods. Again he “wiped” his drive well right of the fairway — on the day he would hit only three of 14 fairways — but summoned a gutsy shot that bounced onto the corner of the green, leaving a 75-footer over a swale, down a hill, through  the shadows to a hole cut on a sideslope. Showing vintage touch and nerve, he feathered to putt to tap-in distance, moving to one under overall and giving himself a strong chance to make the cut. The gutsy finish sent a jolt through the golf world.

“That’s Tiger Woods at his best right there, to make it happen,” Hoffman said. “It’s fun to see the energy out here again. Not saying it wasn’t here at all but when he’s out here it’s something special. He is the needle, as we say.” 

3. Tiger’s up-and-down play should bring a healthy recalibrating of expectations

It is utter madness that the current odds at vegasinsider.com list Woods at 15-1 to win the Masters, with only Dustin Johnson (8/1), Jordan Spieth (8/1) and Rory McIlroy (10/1) as heavier favorites. A couple of days before the Farmers Insurance Open began, Tiger’s old swing coach Hank Haney predicted a top-10 finish. From a guy who hadn’t played a meaningful golf tournament in a year. On a tough, tight, penal golf course. Riiiiight.

While it’s fun to partake in all of the hype, the hard facts are that Woods is 42-years-old with a fused spinal cord. It is indeed encouraging that he is generating more clubhead speed than before his back surgeries began, but over the first two rounds at Torrey Pines there was a perceptible awkwardness to many of his follow-throughs. He had a dreaded two-way miss going with his driver and his full-swing wedge shots were maddeningly imprecise. Across the first two rounds, he ranked 125th in driving accuracy, hitting only 39.3% of fairways, while reaching 58.3% of greens in regulation, to rank 101st. (On the bright side, his wedge play around the greens was reliable and occasionally spectacular, and both Hoffman and Woods chalked up his bogey on the 8th hole to a maddeningly firm green.)

Woods recently jettisoned his swing coach, Chris Como, and he is clearly still trying to figure out how to play with a reconstituted spinal cord. “I’d like to meet somebody [else] who can swing it over 120 miles and hour with a fused back,” he said during a pre-tournament press conference. “Do you know anybody? That’s what I mean, no one understands that. So I have to rely on my own feels and play around with what my body can and cannot do. It’s not going to look like it used to. I don’t have the mobility that I used to and that’s just the reality. Now it’s just a matter of what can I do, and that [takes] practicing and getting my feels and trusting and experimenting a lot to try to figure out what can this body do.”

This is going to remain a work in progress, perhaps for the rest of this season. It is folly to expect too much too soon.

4. Woods’s fellow competitors are still fanboys

Patrick Reed has never disguised his hero worship of Woods. Three years ago they were paired together at Torrey and Reed had to watch with abject horror while Tiger suffered through the chips yips. It was the golfing equivalent of finding out that Santa Claus is actually your mom. Reed and Woods were paired again this year, and even though he dusted his idol by four shots during the first round, Reed was giddy talking about Tiger’s play afterward. It was a sharp contrast to a decade earlier, when Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, et al were palpably oppressed having to continually discuss Woods’s greatness. After answering a bunch of questions about nothing but Tiger, Reed excused himself to sign autographs. As he was walking away a reporter said, “By the way, good round.” Reed laughed at the joke and said, “Don’t worry, I know it’s all about Tiger.” 

5. For all the talk about Woods’s back, this comeback may be determined by the metaphysical

Tiger has not been the same player or person since Thanksgiving 2009. Something fundamentally changed after he suffered the worst public shaming of the Internet age. This new frailty played out between the ropes even in 2012 and ’13, when he was still whole, at least physically. Woods won eight times during those two seasons and summited the World Ranking, but he repeatedly failed in the tournaments that mean everything to him, the major championships, making the kinds of miscues that were unfathomable before the scandal, when his mental toughness was his greatest difference-maker.

He developed a palpable stage-fright, the nadir coming on his first hole at the 2015 British Open, on the Old Course, site of some of his greatest triumphs. On the tee, wielding a mid-iron, he hit it so fat the gouge that was left behind became a macabre monument to a lost genius. Then Tiger duffed his next shot into the burn, effectively ending his tournament after one hole. Now he has to transcend more humiliations, returning to golf just months removed from both hacked nude photos and the dash cam video of his DUI being on public display.

On Friday morning, Tiger was pounding his driver long and straight when he was just one of the guys on the driving range, but there was nowhere to hide once his second round began, on the North Course’s 10th hole, a benign par-5 he needed to birdie to build some momentum. Instead, he hooked his drive so far left (60 yards? 70 yards?) it almost reached a bunker on the South Course’s first hole. On the 13th hole Woods uncorked another vicious hook, into the canyon. That necessitated a penalty drop and begat a double bogey. On the 17th hole he blocked a drive 40 yards right, squandering another par-5.

After a lovely up-and-down for birdie on the par-5 5th hole, which gave him a fighting chance to make the cut, Woods flared a drive on number six so far right it again almost reached the wrong hole. (He managed to save par with an against-all-odds pitch.) No player is going to hit every fairway but misses of this magnitude feel more like much more than technical imprecision. 

6. Sartorially, Elin is missed now more than ever

She was responsible for getting Tiger out of silver-tipped, big-buckled belts that looked they had been purloined from Cap. Jack Sparrow and the billowing, pleated trousers that evoked parachutes attached to his legs. The cleaner, more fitted, more athletic look Woods adopted owed much to his ex-wife’s European sensibilities. Now, Tiger is sporting blade collars that don’t really work for guys half his age and a shimmering orange-accented shirt better suited for Studio 54. And who authorized the white shoes on Friday? It’s gonna be a long comeback.

7. So what now?

Woods was hardly ebullient following his second round, lingering on the inconsistencies of his long game. Stoicism is part of his brand; to get excited about making a cut would undermine what he has always stood for. But Tiger did allow, “I fought hard. Typical, you know, just me going out there and fighting for whatever I can get.” Woods left it for others to get carried away by the moment. Said Hoffman, “To be completely honest, he looked good. He scrambled like Tiger scrambles. If he stays healthy, I expect big things from him.”