Like LeBron, Tiger happy to be back in Ohio


AKRON, Ohio – Comparisons between the world’s most polarizing professional golfer and its most transcendent basketball star come fast and easy, especially in this city.

There's the talent thing, of course: Each was born with immense athletic skill that's been honed through years of intense practice and preparation.

There's the unhealthy dose of expectations: Each has raised the bar so high that on the occasions they don’t win championships, criticism rains down like hailstones from the heavens.

And then there's this: Here in the northeast corner of Ohio where LeBron James recently returned home, Tiger Woods is attempting to make a similar comeback of his own.

No, Tiger wasn't raised here, nor does he own real estate, but he's won $11,060,125 in 15 career trips to this event – a paltry $737,342 per week – which should at least qualify him for honorary Rubber City citizenship.

If that sounds like a lot, it is. That number alone would place him 133rd on the PGA Tour’s career money list – above names like Tom Kite, Bernhard Langer, Craig Stadler and John Daly. And even with a last-place finish this week, he’ll pass Tom Watson.

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In fact, his list of accomplishments at Firestone Country Club reads like a list of Most Interesting Man in the World memes.

He once finished off a win in the dark … and made birdie. He once hit a shot onto the clubhouse roof … and only made bogey. He once struggled on the back nine … and still shot 61.

All told, Woods has won eight times in 16 tries at this tournament. Even he knows that’s an exceedingly impressive percentage.

“I've finished first eight times,” he said Wednesday with a knowing smile. “So that's actually a pretty good stat.”

Here’s another noteworthy stat: The last of those eight was the last time he won. Anywhere.

It was a year ago this week that Woods polished off a seven-stroke triumph, then hugged his son Charlie, scooped up another piece of hardware for the trophy room and left here $1.5 million richer.

Prior to this week’s edition of the event, he didn’t allow that it felt longer than a year since that day, but it’s been an injury-riddled, enigmatic, uncharacteristic 52-week period for the game’s biggest star.

He followed that victory with just one top 10 in his last five starts of the season while hampered by a back injury that he consistently maintained wasn’t hampering him. He then returned this year to more of the same, a list of wince-inducing results that any Tigerphile has long since memorized and tried to forget.

He missed the secondary cut at Torrey Pines, where his record rivals that of Firestone; he withdrew from the Honda Classic; he grimaced his way through a T-25 at Doral; he underwent microdiscectomy surgery; he missed three months; he returned at his own Quicken Loans National, missing the cut; and he played in his first major of the year, finishing in 69th place.

All of which brings us back to here at Firestone, where Woods is hoping that a return to friendly confines will in turn boost his performance level.

“There are certain golf courses – here, Torrey, Bay Hill, even Augusta – no matter what my form is going into that week or on those particular venues, I just somehow feel good,” he said. “It doesn't mean I'm going to play well, but I still have that feeling.”

It’s difficult to believe that a player who has won more PGA Tour events than anyone besides Sam Snead and more major championships than anyone other than Jack Nicklaus would need to relearn how to win, but having those good vibes on familiar territory certainly won’t hurt his chances.

As Woods is quick to point out, he needs a big week to not only salvage his season, but to potentially qualify him for the FedEx Cup playoffs and a Ryder Cup spot. Those carrots are dangling in front of him right now – and they couldn’t come at a better place.

“I'm excited to be back,” he said. “I've had some pretty good memories here. I've had some pretty good rounds and certainly some great moments on this property. Anytime I come back here, it's always a good solid feeling, and I'm looking forward to this week.”

Tiger’s comments might not have echoed LeBron’s now-famous refrain of “I’m coming home,” but the sentiment isn’t far off.

Like his fellow superstar, Woods understands that winning a championship in his return to the Akron area would alleviate some pressure and once again live up to those lofty expectations.