Tour Confidential: What to expect and what’s next? Previewing Tiger’s return to competitive golf

November 26, 2017 conducts a weekly roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and GOLF Magazine. Check in every Sunday night for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com.

1. The week is FINALLY upon us: Tiger’s return. After months of speculation and anticipation and reports that he’s outdriving DJ, Woods will play in this week’s Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, his first competitive start in more than eight months. Will the first act of Tiger’s latest comeback attempt be fantastic or a flop?

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Such extreme options! Fantastic, I guess. By which I mean he plays four rounds, doesn’t hurt himself, shows that the game still brings him some pleasure, hits good shots, goes 72 holes without a yip.

John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): I’ll lean toward the fantastic. The three things I would love to see is a pain-free golf swing, a lot of drivers off the tee and, like Michael said, joy. I hope he looks like a junior golfer out there sometimes, with a smile and having fun. I think that’ll be a good starting point.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): It’s fantastic that he’s back. The words of Faxon and, before that, Fowler, have helped stoke the anticipation but they’re not helpful for Tiger. The expectations — his and ours — should be very, very low. It’s gonna be fun to watch him play golf again and, for now, that’s all that matters. One more point: I think the rehab stint was more important for Tiger than we can know. The DUI report made clear how out of control his prescription drug use had become. Tough to play golf like that. If his mind is clear and his body flushed-out from all of those toxins, that could make this comeback much different from all the previous, aborted ones.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine (@JoshSens): If you love golf, how can it be anything but fantastic that the greatest of all time is having another go at it? We don’t just follow sports for singular feats. We follow them for the storylines, and the Tiger narrative is filled with them. Whether this one will turn out to be a hero’s journey, a tragedy or a farce is impossible to know. But if I weren’t watching, I would feel as if I were missing out.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, (@Jeff_Ritter): Four healthy rounds, no yips, and then toss in a few birdies on the gettable golf course. After the year he’s had, that would add up to a fantastic start.

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF Magazine (@joepassov): Fantastic. It’s Tiger. He’s back.

Cheryl Anderson, GOLF Top 100 Teacher, director of instruction, Mike Bender Golf Academy (Lake Mary, Fla.): Fantastic. I have a feeling that Tiger is playing golf for the right reason now. Rather than trying to prove anything to the world, I think he is working hard on his game because he loves the challenge. I think his quest to get better made him a great golfer and I think that’s his reason for playing golf again.

2. The prevailing sentiment seems to be that Woods just needs to play four injury-free rounds for his Hero campaign to be deemed a success. Given all the positive reports we’ve heard about Tiger’s health and game, would you agree?

Bamberger: I haven’t seen any positive reports. I’ve seen some orchestrated PR efforts. It’s silly. (Ridiculous, really.) Let him play 10 tournaments and by June we might know a little something. This is four days of easy golf.

Wood: I would. There’s also the X-factor in all of this, his caddie Joe LaCava. I mean, the guy has repainted his basement about six times in the last year, his lawn must look like a fairway at Augusta National, he’s been to 342 sports and school functions for his two awesome kids, Joe Jr. and Soupy, but has he picked up a golf bag for any reason other than to move it from his trunk to the golf cart? If you didn’t know things ain’t light. Perhaps we will get him his own pull cart for the practice rounds and pro-am, just so he can ease back into it. We’re all here for ya, Joey. Pace yourself. (And congratulations to Joe’s wife Megan for finally getting the old man out of the house for a while.)

Shipnuck: The chip-yips still lurk. When Tiger made his return at last year’s Hero — deja vu — he looked shaky around the greens. It’s folly to expect him to be razor-sharp, but it’s important that he doesn’t flinch on the shorties with his wedge.

Sens: The true measure of success is whatever Tiger deems it to be. I don’t think any of us knows what that is. And, at the risk of getting too shrinky about it all, I wonder whether Tiger himself does. But my guess is that anything less than winning big events would fall short. I personally don’t have a lot of interest in watching Tiger play ceremonial golf. But I’m sure a lot of other people would consider that a win.

Ritter: This week, sure, finishing four rounds is a success. The pressure will ratchet up as his comeback progresses, but this week the bar is relatively low. Then again, like last year at this event, I’d still like to see him finish ahead of at least one person in the field!

Passov: Four injury-free rounds is the bar for success and for a reasonable level of expectation to pervade, impossible as that might be. With 24 birdies in 72 holes in last year’s Hero, expectations soared. And then Torrey and Dubai crushed everything. I’m with Michael — because that’s what I’ve been saying all along. Let him play, period, and let’s see how it all unfolds.

Anderson: Yes, but I also think Tiger will feel successful if he finds the joy in playing the game and creating shots.

3. Assuming Tiger does stay healthy this week, when and where are we most likely to see him play next?

Bamberger: I would hope and expect Torrey Pines.

Wood: I agree, Torrey Pines.

Shipnuck: Why wait til Torrey? Waialae is a perfect course for Tiger to shape shots and play Hoylake-style small ball. He’s had so few reps the last four years — if he’s truly healthy he should go hard on the West Coast swing and try to build some momentum.

Sens: I agree with Alan but suspect we won’t see Tiger again til Torrey.

Ritter: After reinjuring himself in Dubai last winter, I’m thinking maybe he limits those flights from Jupiter to six hours or less. Torrey works. Pass on Hawaii. And don’t even think about Dubai.

Passov: Dubai and Torrey are the same week in 2018, so it will be one or the other. Still, Tiger is a creature of habit, and he has done the desert for many, many years. Since he does have a course design in progress over there (in Dubai), he might just play in Abu Dhabi the week before Torrey.

Anderson: As soon as possible. I think he needs to compete as much as he can, even if he played in some smaller events. He needs to feel the heat again on a consistent basis. His memory of how to play golf will always be with him but he has to get back into the rhythm of competition. There is a certain momentum that he will need to attain again and that will only come from competing.

4. The distance debate heated up last week with USGA executive director Mike Davis and Titleist chief Wally Uihlein both making their cases to the Wall Street Journal. Davis said the distance boom is hurting golf by forcing courses to get longer. “All it’s doing is increasing the cost of the game,” he said. “The impact it has had has been horrible.” Uihlein said there is no evidence that golf-course operating costs have increased “due to advances in equipment technology.” He added that “the only people that seem to be grappling with advances in technology and physical fitness are the short-sighted golf course developers and the supporting golf course architectural community who built too many golf courses where the notion of a ‘championship golf course’ was brought on line primarily to sell real estate.” What’s your take? Have longer tee shots genuinely hurt the economics of golf?

Bamberger: I couldn’t judge the hurt-the-economics-of-golf question. The modern ball has made Tour golf, for me, less interesting and more of a slog. At my level (92-shooter!) the longer ball with space-age equipment has made the game more enjoyable but at the expense of beauty. I’m in favor of a ball for them and a ball for us. I think a softer ball that curves more is a better test of golfing skill at the highest level.

Ritter: Totally agree. I’ve never hit the ball farther than I do today, and that’s certainly a blast. But the pros are decimating classic courses. The ball isn’t the lone culprit, but it’s certainly a factor. I see no harm in a ball for the Tour pros, and one for the rest of us.

Wood: I 100 percent agree with Michael. There’s no reason to change the ball for the everyday player. (By the way, if you’re a 10 handicap or more, you’ll shoot the same score with a decent range ball that you would with one from a $60 per-dozen price tag, speaking of economics.) I can only comment on the competitive aspect of the balls. Shrink the allowable head size of a driver and roll back the ball a bit for the best of the best, and I think the game at that level gets more interesting as well as preserves classic courses for major championships.

Shipnuck: I’ve been taking shrapnel for a very long time over my contention that Tour courses need to be 9K yards, but Gil Hanse recently endorsed that number and Brandel just offered 8,500 as the number, so he’s coming around, too. Of course it’s a ridiculous idea — a course that long would require obscene amounts of water and land and time to play. So if we’re talking economics, the modern game has become too expensive to maintain.

Sens: Like Michael, I couldn’t give you a detailed dollar breakdown. But sure, bigger courses require bigger budgets for the most part, especially given the costly expectations so many people have of what a golf course “should” look like. A few years ago, during the worst of the drought out here in California, Pasatiempo, the great Mackenzie course in Santa Cruz, was required by the municipality to cut back on water use. As a result, the course was browned out in a number of areas where you weren’t supposed to hit the ball anyway. The fairways were firm. The greens were perfect. The course was playing very much as it was designed to play, but it was not emerald green, and so, a lot of golfers complained. The grousing was loud and persistent enough that Pasatiempo management offered a rebate on greens fees as an apology. That spoke volumes. More realistic than rolling back equipment would be a continued effort to educate golfers about what’s good for the game they love.

Passov: Mr. Wood is on target by spreading some of the blame away from solely the ball, to equipment in general. Lighter, yet bigger, more forgiving clubs have enabled this generation of players to swing as hard as they can, transforming golf into a game that disproportionately rewards power, because the frequency and severity of missing the shot is nothing like what it would have been back in the old days. Golf at the professional level mirrors the equipment evolution in tennis, where nearly every successful player is a power player. Because of that, architects and the USGA have had to change how they operate in an attempt to test the best. And yes, that has made the game more expensive.

Anderson: Have longer tee shots genuinely hurt the economics of golf? The most challenging holes on the PGA or LPGA tours are the par 3s. The par 5s are the easiest to score on so making courses longer doesn’t necessarily make them more difficult for the tour professionals, however, it does make them more challenging for the average golfer. Most golfers do not want to play from their appropriate tee boxes and end up trying to play all the way back. Since there is no imminent danger, like skiing down from the top of a mountain and crashing into a tree, they suffer through and shoot higher scores and become frustrated more often than not. Some of the greatest holes in golf are shorter par 4s. Thinking back to the U.S. Amateur this summer at Riviera CC it came down to the par-4 10th hole for a playoff. One poor shot on that hole can easily lead to a double.

5. Jason Day took a one-shot lead into the final round of the Australian Open but stumbled on Sunday, shooting 73 and finishing 5th, three behind his 22-year-old countryman, Cameron Davis. Day hasn’t won since the 2016 Players and has dropped to No. 12 in the world. Do you expect him to ever regain his world-beating form of 2015-16?

Bamberger: I don’t. He’s a terrific young guy, good with fans and reporters and playing partners. A huge, big-hearted talent. I just have the feeling his highest priorities are elsewhere.

Wood: Possibly not all the way to No. 1 in the world again, but he will compete and win more major championships before he’s done.

Shipnuck: I think Day discovered, like many before him, that it takes a supreme sacrifice and unhealthy focus to get to No. 1, and once you’re there the obligations (fan, sponsors, media) can be overwhelming. Doubtful he wants to pay that price again. But the guy simply has too much game to remain a non-factor. He’ll have his hot streaks, and all the better if they coincide with the major championships, but I wouldn’t expect to see that kind of sustained dominance again.

Sens: All the above rings true to me. But let’s not forget that Day has also been battling a litany of injuries. You can’t be a world-beater if you’re not healthy. Day says he’s feeling better physically than he has in a while. Let’s hope he stays that way.

Ritter: In addition to the injuries, he also faced a new off-course distraction in the form of his mother’s health problems. Hopefully she’s feeling better. He’ll have better seasons than the one he just finished, and he’ll absolutely become a big winner again, but that hill back to No. 1 is pretty steep.

Passov: I’ve always relished watching Jason Day play golf, with his remarkable touch to match his fearless attitude and incredible clubhead speed. Yet, it seems he’s been tagged with so much baggage these past five years, from injury to vertigo to personal issues and such, it’s hard to see him climbing all the way back. He’s a compelling presence, however, and golf could really use him as a frequent contender again. I’m bummed that he couldn’t get it done this week, but it shows he’s closer.

Anderson: He is likely going through an adjustment stage with a new caddie. He is extremely talented and can certainly climb back to the top. To be at the top everything has to be going your way. One has to have the talent (which he has), the work ethic (which he has) and also some luck. There are so many good players, so all of the dominoes need to be lined up perfectly for one to be at the top.

6. It’s Cyber Monday! What’s one can’t-miss golf gadget/gizmo/aid/etc., you’d race to the web to buy?

Bamberger: Neumann leather grips.

Wood: A GOLFBOARD. It’s like a surf/skateboard that fits your golf bag and powers you around the course. It would make those waits tolerable and make me want to head to the course a heck of a lot more.

Shipnuck: A set of Edel single-length irons. First time in my life I’ve felt confident holding a 4-iron.

Sens: A digital shot-clock, rigidly enforced. As a sign I once saw on the 1st tee of a course in Ireland put it, “Three-and-a-half-hours is enough!” Frankly, I think three hours is plenty, but I’m willing to compromise.

Ritter: I left my final putt of 2017 two inches short, so I’ll pony up for one of those brain-erasers from “Men In Black” to avoid having to dwell on it until spring.

Passov: I’m as low-tech as they come, on and off the course, but my brother-in-law was just showing me his Bushnell Pro X2 Laser Rangefinder, which calculates slope (in the terrain) and incorporates that into the distance number. For USGA events, when that calculation is forbidden, you just flip a switch and it’s off. If it’s something that will help me play faster, and better, I’m game.

Anderson: A Blast Motion sensor.