BETHESDA, Md. – This is not going to play well on message boards and across the social media universe, but when it comes to Tiger Woods everything has changed.
Don’t take our word for it, let the man himself explain.
Remember that old fallback, “Second sucks”? There is no doubt that bridesmaid finishes are still best avoided, but after another extended stay on the DL and more time under a surgeon’s knife, the former world No. 1 has embraced the long view.
“Expectations don’t change. That’s the ultimate goal (to win),” Woods explained on Tuesday at the Quicken Loans National, his first scheduled PGA Tour start since he signed for a 78 on March 3 at Doral. “It’s just that it’s going to be a little bit harder this time. I just haven’t had the amount of prep and reps that I would like.”
Things have changed, like at 38 years old, it’s time to listen to his body and the team of medial minds he has on retainer. That hasn’t always been the case (see Open, U.S. 2008).
“That’s one thing I have learned – stubbornly,” he conceded.
That luck may favor the prepared – for the better part of his Hall of Fame decade and a half it was all the things the public didn’t see, the countless hours perfecting his craft on the practice tee at Isleworth, that separated him so drastically from the pack – but some stop signs are best obeyed.
The microdiscectomy procedure he had on March 31 to remedy a pinched nerve has taught him that. More than a year and a half of debilitating back pain has dictated that.
“I’m not able to do the work I’m accustomed to doing,” he said before heading out for a session on the range at Congressional.
That he’s playing this week, with his doctor’s blessing, in large part because the Quicken Loans event benefits his Tiger Woods Foundation.
“If this wasn’t the foundation and our goal we have with the kids I probably would not (have played this week),” Woods said.
That he’s thrust himself back into breach with something less than his best stuff.
“It still hasn’t happened,” he said when asked if his “explosiveness” had returned. “Not to the level that I’m used to, not to the level that I’m used to being that explosive. That’s going to come in time.”
That there is a time and a place for an 80-percent Tiger if it means he can avoid the MRI machine.
“I probably may not go at it as hard on all shots,” he allowed.
With age and an endless list of medial maladies have come perspective and patience, the ability to endure months of “tedious” therapy in his return to competitive golf.
When Woods last spoke publically at Congressional during the Quicken Loans National media day on May 18 he was not hitting full shots. Since then he’s slowly worked his way through his bag, hitting each club farther and farther in 10-yard increments until he worked his way up to hitting his driver “a couple weeks ago.”
Because he couldn’t bend over immediately following surgery, he filled in the holes on his practice green in South Florida with sand. Now he’s filling in the blanks.
Of all of Woods’ various injuries – ruptured ACL (2007), torn Achilles’ tendon (2008), stress fracture in his tibia (2008), inflamed facet joint (2010) – this one was different.
“Pre-procedure, right before I went in, I wasn’t able to function. I couldn’t get out of bed,” Woods said. “I just couldn’t do any normal activities. When I blew out my knee and even had my Achilles problems I could still do things.”
And post-procedure? “Like you get your life back,” he said.
His competitive life begins a new chapter on Thursday at 8:12 a.m., under a vastly different backdrop. Gone, it seems, are the days of defying doctors and the determined march of time.
There will be no more 30-mile runs and endless hours in the gym or on the practice tee. There is no more room for misplaced machismo in what Justin Rose dubbed his race to 18 major championships, and definitely no place for unrealistic expectations.
In many ways, this week’s Quicken Loans National is akin to a rehab start, think a hard-throwing right-hander knocking the rust off in Pawtucket before joining the big club for a weekend series in Boston.
It was important for Woods to be at the Quicken Loans National, where he has missed two of the last three tournaments, and there was no small amount of optimism in the fact that his recovery is ahead of schedule (his original plan was to return in time for next month’s Open Championship at Royal Liverpool).
“No matter who you are, there’s an element of getting the rust off and if I was Tiger Woods I would probably be looking at the Open Championship and the decision to play here is because he doesn’t want to be rusty at the Open,” Rose said.
But that reality was tempered by a man who after nearly a decade of overcoming physical barriers is at ease with the fact that recovery from injuries is not a race.
Perhaps tune-up starts have never really been in Woods’ repertoire, but then things change. If Tuesday’s Q&A was any indication, everything has changed.