Certainties and unknowns in Tiger's return


In the column you’re about to read, I’ve been asked to assess Tiger Woods’ chances at this week’s Frys.com Open. Nice assignment, huh? I’ve got a better chance of predicting the ’12 presidential election – 3012.

Anyone who hasn’t been in a tryptophan-induced nap since Thanksgiving night two years ago has witnessed his plight. The erstwhile GOAT (Greatest Of All-Time) is now considered a goat (an inferior member of any group), the model superstar transformed into a model of inconsistency.

All of which means absolutely nothing entering his first career Fall Series appearance. Woods is capable of winning by double-digits or missing the cut – and I don’t know which scenario is more likely. I don’t know if his new “straighter” drives will finally start finding the fairways. I don’t know if his putting stroke – last seen on the back of a milk carton – will return to form. I don’t know if he’ll be motivated against a field of less accomplished players.

So, what do I know about Tiger in advance of his next start? Well, just a few things…

I know that he recently shot a course-record 62 at his new home course, the ultra-difficult Medalist Golf Club. I know this because the news was splashed across the headlines, despite the fact that elite professional golfers collect course records the way most grandmothers collect coupons.

Does it mean anything going into a competitive appearance? Maybe, maybe not. It certainly can’t hurt that Woods at least boasted one fortuitous round prior to teeing it up again, but it should hardly serve as a determining factor of success 3,000 miles away.

I know Woods is working hard and has looked proficient in practice, because his swing instructor told me so. The last time I spoke with Sean Foley, he talked about how his most popular pupil was striping it at the range and gearing up to get back into action.

Of course, not to take Foley’s words lightly, but I’ve never actually heard from a coach who said of his guy, “He’s a work in progress and he isn’t close right now. Don’t expect much. In fact, don’t expect anything. Except maybe an upcoming trip to Q-School.”

The power of positivity may be as important for an instructor as breaking down the mechanics of the swing, but there’s a certain quiet confidence from Foley that tells me Tiger’s return to glory is less a matter of “if” than “when.”

He brings up some terrific points in defense of their work together. They’ve now spent 11 competitive tournaments trying to rebuild and tweak his swing, dating back to last year’s PGA Championship. As a comparative example, Foley invokes the progress of another star student, Justin Rose, maintaining that through 11 events together, his swing wasn’t close to where they both wanted it. The Brit now owns three PGA Tour victories in the past two seasons, including at the BMW Championship two weeks ago.

That would suggest patience is recommended when debating the long-term effects of these changes on Woods, though patience is often forgotten when it comes to his prospects.

I know this feels like déjà vu. Two months ago, Woods returned after a three-month hiatus and the masses were ready to declare him “back” at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. The result reminded me of something I once wrote after spending 30 minutes seated next to Woods on a bus ride through Manhattan. He was “remarkably unremarkable.”

In the case of the bus ride, the context purported that he was just a regular guy – someone who, away from the course, is more apt to speak about small talk such as last night’s ballgame or the weather rather than chasing down Jack Nicklaus’ all-time major championship record. At Firestone, it was a reference to his final result, as he finished T-37 in the 76-man field. Doesn’t get much more remarkably unremarkable than that.

One week later, he played nacho golf at the PGA. You know how nachos always start out hot and delicious, dripping with tasty toppings, only to turn into a weighty pile of stale chips and congealed cheese 10 minutes later? That was Woods at Atlanta Athletic Club, as he posted three early birdies, only to see his chances soon congeal, cleared away from the table before the weekend in the form of a missed cut.

I know that his buddy Bryon Bell was overmatched on the bag those two weeks – and I know Joe LaCava will be a huge upgrade. The former caddie for Fred Couples and, more recently, Dustin Johnson, LaCava is a pro’s pro, one of the top loopers in the game for the past two decades.

It may take the new tandem a few tournaments to learn each other’s idiosyncrasies, but some improvements will be instantaneous. At the PGA, Bell couldn’t have helped stop the bleeding if he was spotted the tourniquet. In the same scenario, LaCava may not know the right thing to say to his boss right away, but he’ll say something, which is better than what was offered from the most recent alternative.

And lastly, I know criticisms of Woods’ game will continue, no matter the end result this week. The tournament may not be a literal no-win situation for him, but it is a figurative one. Think about it: If Tiger fails to contend or even make the cut, the Bronx cheers will ring even louder. Some will mindlessly draw the conclusion that such an outcome means he’ll never again be the player he once was.

It will permeate to those closest to him, too. Foley will be ripped for “ruining” his swing. Couples will be jeered for prematurely naming him to the Presidents Cup team. LaCava will chided for leaving a birdie machine in Johnson for a player whose future may be in doubt.

If he wins, if Woods goes out and blitzes the field by double-digits this week, well, in the eyes of many, he still can’t win. Such a triumph will be written off as the schoolyard bully beating up the younger kids for their lunch money. Against a field of aging vets and wide-eyed rookies, soon-to-be Nationwide Tour regulars and Q-School entrants, even a convincing victory won’t convince people that Tiger is once again capable of being one of the world’s best players, if not the absolute best.

This much I know. As for how Woods will actually fare at the Frys.com Open this week, I still have no idea – but I do know we’ll find out soon.