Predicting Tigers Return

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Isleworth Country Club, where Tiger Woods lives, practices and plays golf, is the games version, these days, of the old Kremlin.
 
Situated amid the spring-fed Butler chain of lakes of southwest Orlando, Isleworth is one the prettiest places in Central Florida. And comparisons with the center of the Communist world back in the height of the Cold War have nothing to do with diametrically opposed ideologies.
 
Its just that the information coming out of Moscow in the old days was very guarded. The experts at deciphering that information were called: Kremlinologists.
 
Similarly Tigers camp keeps its own, close, careful counsel. Rarely does anything newsy emerge from Woods inner circle unless it has first been released on TigerWoods.com. There are no Tigerologists.
 
But there are Tiger sightings. And people do talk. And right now the entire golf world hangs on every scrap that might hint at when Woods will return from the reconstructive surgery he underwent last June after capturing the U.S. Open in a playoff over Rocco Mediate.
 
Recently word leaked out of Isleworth that Woods was not only playing more holes on a regular basis, but that he had adopted a new, much wider stance. This development came from a reliable source, who had watched Woods hitting balls at length and actually played a few holes with him.
 
Could this mean Woods was experimenting, as many had predicted, with a new swing that would put less pressure on his knee and produce less torque as a safety measure? The source also said Woods was looking incredibly buff.
 
So I ran it all past Hank Haney, Woods swing coach and the pair of eyes he trusts most when it comes to his game. Haney patiently responded without revealing any trade secrets. He is fiercely protective of a student from whom he freely admits he has learned more than he has taught.
 
Yes, Tiger is playing more holes at Isleworth, Haney said. And of course he is looking buff. He has been working out for about four hours a day for, like, six months.
 
As for Tiger looking different with his swing and working off a wider stance to be more protective of the knee? No.
 
How about this analysis: Tiger has played one tournament in nine months. One. The result of that is a lot of rustiness in his game.
 
He has had a lot of little things that have been different over the course of his working to get his game back on track. But to assume that everything that is different is by design is a wrong assumption.
 
Remember, assumption is the mother of all screw-ups. I was down last week (mid-January) to Isleworth and his stance was fine. I came down the next week and noticed that his stance with the driver was very wide. That has since been corrected. So that blows the theory of the new wide stance.
 
He is just practicing mostly, started playing a little recently and working to get the rust off. It is a slow process when you havent played in nine months.
 
I have no idea when Tiger will be ready to play. I do know that before he left the game for his surgery he had won 10 of 13 tournaments with two seconds and a fifth. So it might take a little while to get his game back to that level and I know that he isnt just looking to participate.
 
So what does all this mean and how should we best interpret it?
 
For starters, Woods is human. Like all golfers, he develops a bad habit every now again. Thats why Haney monitors him.
 
One teacher said the wide stance could have been a temporary device on Woods part until the knee is 100 percent. But the Isleworth source said Woods showed no trace of a limp and was taking his usual aggressive lines on shots that required long-distance carries.
 
We know Woods is as desperate to play in the Masters in April as we all are to have him in the field. We know he would like at least one tune-up before Augusta National. We also know that Woods doesnt want to return to competitive golf unless he feels like he can win immediately. He told us as much at his own tournament in December in California.
 
We also know his wife, Elin, is due to deliver the couples second child sometime this month. That anticipated event is an even higher priority than the knee and the comeback.
 
So there are a lot of moving parts here and a lot of variables. Haney is correct to assert that assumptions are dangerous.
 
Last month the Associated Press reported that it was likely Woods would make his 2009 debut at the WGC Accenture Match Play later this month near Tucson. Nobody from the Woods responded. And, to repeat, Haney doesnt know when Woods will be ready.
 
But the Match Play makes even more sense now for several reasons: Accenture is one of Woods sponsors. He is the defending champion. The galleries at the event arent historically huge. So an appearance at the Match Play would give Woods a relatively hassle free opportunity to check back in with his fellow players and the media. The circus there wouldnt have as many rings.
 
This much we know for sure: Tiger Woods will tell us where and when his next tournament will be only when he decides the right time has arrived.
 
So actually there is a Tigerologist out there. His name is Tiger Woods.
 

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