WINDERMERE, Fla. – Rebranded with its fifth title sponsor since the turn of the century – not including the year it went without one – Tiger Woods’ own late-season money-grab event might as well be called the Irony Invitational these days. That’s because, in truth, it’s now the Hero World Challenge, a nod to new Woods endorser Hero MotoCorp, but even the most cynical among us can spot the unintentional double-entendre in its name.
In the four months since Woods last teed it up in competition – just like the month he missed last year and the three months he missed two years earlier and the three months the year before that – we may not have learned anything new, but a few of our collective opinions were certainly reinforced.
One, the game at its most elite level isn’t spiraling down the rabbit hole of insignificance without him; and two, it’s a whole lot more interesting with him.
On Monday, a six-second Vine video of Woods hitting a tee shot on a driving range went viral on social media, its existence alone enough to inspire the long-slumbering golf community into sleuthing for clues about the future. Is he standing more upright? Does his swing speed look a bit faster? Has he lost some weight?
Hey, maybe the tournament wasn’t the only one holding out for a Hero.
Now that Woods is returning to action once again, it feels like the golf world is getting back to some normalcy. That world doesn’t revolve around him, but he at least helps place it back on the proper axis.
Of course, the words “Tiger” and “back” are a double-entendre themselves these days, the half-decade-old intonation that he’s still trying to regain prior form mixed with a reminder of the injury that led to his most recent absence in the first place – a recurring back injury which ended his previous season after the PGA Championship.
Don’t expect those two to come together in perfect harmony at this week’s 18-player tournament here at posh Isleworth Golf and Country Club, either. Woods admitted during a news conference before a packed house that while the injury is no longer a concern, the time missed because of it could keep him at a decided disadvantage against the field.
“Am I game-ready? Probably not quite as I would like to be,” he conceded. “It will be interesting to go out there on Thursday and [see] how long does it take for me to get my feel back for game shots; feel for my numbers; feel for my yardages; hitting the ball a certain trajectory; what's the wind doing; all the little things, hearing things; and making adjustments on my downswing.
“How long does it take me to get back into the flow of a round – sometimes it takes me a shot, sometimes it takes me three or four holes after a long layoff. I don't know. We'll see on Thursday.”
As if there weren’t already enough variables at play, Woods is also introducing a new swing “consultant” to his game, sparking debate as to whether he’ll endure another long journey toward multiple changes in his move through the ball.
It’s been widely pointed out that Chris Como’s other clients – Aaron Baddeley, Richard Lee, Trevor Immelman and Jamie Lovemark – aren’t exactly the most accurate ball-strikers around, leading to a theory that Woods could fall in line with such erraticism.
Conversely, though, it should be noted that he’s fresh off a relationship with Sean Foley that didn’t yield terribly accurate results, despite the instructor’s client list including a pair of world-class ball-strikers in Justin Rose and Hunter Mahan.
When asked whether his work with Como was a return to an old swing or the introduction of a new one, Woods spoke in riddles. “Well,” he sighed, “it is new, but it’s old.”
Translation: It’s too complex to try and explain it to you. Other translation: Even if I could, I don’t really want to.
And so instead we’ll be left to our own observational devices this week, watching Woods’ return with a keen eye toward not only the current tournament, but how this progress will affect him going forward.
This tournament needed a hero to swoop in and save it with a title sponsorship – and it got one in Hero. As for that double-entendre this week, Woods might not be playing the role of hero, but one thing remains powerfully true throughout the early days of his latest return.
The golf world is a whole lot more interesting when he’s playing.