Hawk's Nest: Wie's win, Tiger's return great for golf


This comeback is already different from the others. Gone are the days when Tiger Woods expected to hit the ground winning, a point he made clear when announcing his return to action this week at Congressional.

Second sucks? Not anymore, pal. When you’re 38 years old and coming off back surgery, when you failed to post a single top-10 finish in the seven months prior to your health issues, the world doesn’t look nearly as conquerable.

“I want to play myself back into competitive shape,” is how Woods put it last Friday. A sound premise – just not something we’d ever heard from golf’s ultimate warrior. Tiger used to bend reality. Sometimes, he would break it. Now he’s learning to live with it.

The grim reality? Our game continues to struggle at the box office without Woods around to fatten the mainstream audience. Coming off the lowest television ratings at a Masters since 1993, the U.S. Open produced its worst numbers in almost two decades. It was trounced by America’s World Cup victory over Ghana, which drew more than twice as many viewers – on a Monday evening.

Good thing Tiger didn’t decide to play soccer.

His mere presence has always had a dramatic impact on interest levels, but with a simple little notification on Facebook this past Friday, Woods altered the complexion of the season. Michelle Wie wins the U.S. Women’s Open two days later, and a week that began with a rotten lemon ended with a basket of fresh fruit.

Pro golf needs its needle-movers to perform. There are too many meaningless tournaments for the game to prosper when the big ones aren’t top-of-the-hour news. Woods may not be healthy enough to win right away. Is our game healthy enough to thrive without him?

IT WAS HOW she won, not necessarily what she won, that I found so impressive. The hybrid club from the fairway bunker on the par-4 16th was as silly as it gets, but Wie never lost her composure as a search party frantically combed the fescue. Her ball would be found, an unplayable lie would be taken – and Wie would be forced to hole one of those 5-footers that have haunted her for years – just to save bogey.

The 25-footer for birdie on the 17th, meanwhile, was a spectacular surprise, a seal-the-deal statement from a young lady whose career has been full of close calls and untimely falls. Women’s golf needed something that would alter its competitive landscape. Wie needed to do something that would reaffirm her importance to women’s golf.

Mission accomplished. Mission accomplished.

Even under the most intense competitive duress, the 24-year-old looked like a totally different person than the one I covered in the early- and mid-2000s. Having written for years that Wie needed to love the game before the game loved her back, she has done just that. Her emotional commitment is now obvious, perhaps best displayed during her post-round interview Saturday evening with NBC’s Mark Rolfing.

Her first major title came long overdue, and while I laugh at those who think “the floodgates will open” after Woods wins his next major, I wouldn’t be the least bit shocked if Wie picks up two more majors in the next 12 months.

She used to bend reality, too, but mostly, she just ran from it. Now it looks like her best friend.

IF SPECULATION THAT Tiger had originally planned to return at the British Open was correct, that means he’s ahead of schedule physically. Or that he’s excited about playing again. Or both. All of which would amount to good news for something other than commercial purposes, although you’d expect a 38-year-old man coming off back surgery to feel giddy about being pain-free.

Two of my colleagues made excellent points regarding Woods over the weekend – one on the air, the other in a phone conversation. My editor, Jay Coffin, pointed out that if Woods spent much of the past six weeks relegated to chipping and putting, he might be exceptionally sharp on and around the greens.

As regular readers of this column might attest, I attribute Red Shirt’s inability to win majors in recent years to poor putting – a diminished short game in general caused by his growing infatuation with swing mechanics, which monopolized his practice time. In short, Woods became a range rat, obsessed with form over results.

Ten or 12 years ago, it wasn’t unusual for him to spend two hours on the practice green before the start of a tournament. By the mid-2000s, however, Tiger began behaving like a man imprisoned by perfection. In that sense, swing coach Hank Haney became the perfect accompaniment – a “method” instructor with unyielding patience and an uncanny eye for detail.

Which takes us to comments made Friday by Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee once news of Woods’ return broke. “Having a long golf swing is the secret to longevity,” Chamblee said. “What I saw [earlier this year with Tiger] was a shorter backswing, and the problems of a shorter backswing accumulate all the way through.

“You have less time to transfer your weight. You have less time to make up for problems. You have less time to build power.”

In recent years, Woods has said on numerous occasions that changes in his body have made it impossible for him to swing the way he did as a 22-year-old. He was obviously much skinnier and more flexible back then, and though I enjoy Chamblee’s opinions and consider him the game’s best on-air swing analyst, I don’t think the shorter swing had anything to do with his back.

The man needs to stop training with heavy weights. In his first start of 2014, back in January at the Dubai Desert Classic, Tiger could barely get the club to parallel. He looked like an old man compared to fellow competitor Rory McIlroy, and there was no evidence to suggest his back was giving him problems six months ago.

What matters now is that he’s healthy enough to play – and eager to get back. Clearly, Woods missed the competitive element during his three months away, and I would expect him to play much better golf with his mind refreshed and enthusiasm level high.

BEST PLAYER WITHOUT a major title. It’s one of those good-news, bad-news designations, highly subjective as a topic of conversation and virtually impossible to agree upon. With that in mind, I set out to identify an official BPWM by polling a bunch of my friends at GolfChannel.com, a couple of opinionated tour pros and a swing coach or two.

The winner, so to speak? Well, it’s rather fitting that the guy finished T-2 at the Travelers Championship. I asked everyone to list their top five in order, then assigned 10 points for first, 8 for second, etc. Here are the results:

1. Sergio Garcia 76

2. Lee Westwood 74

3. Dustin Johnson 46

4. Henrik Stenson 36

5. Matt Kuchar and Steve Stricker 28

Others who received votes but didn’t come close to making the cut: Luke Donald, Brandt Snedeker, Jason Day and Jordan Spieth.

Obviously, this was a very tight battle that could easily have gone to extra holes. Garcia received four first-place votes but was left off one ballot altogether; Westwood had three 10-pointers but failed to register with two voters, which ultimately cost him the crown.

Frankly, I was surprised Kuchar didn’t fare better, seeing how he has won a Players Championship, a WGC and a FedEx Cup playoff tilt – and seems to be on the leaderboard every week. Donald, meanwhile, made just three ballots and earned 12 points.

Hey, at least Sergio finally beat a decent field. The T-2 in Hartford was his best finish since his last victory, the 2012 Wyndham Championship, which remains his only W on the PGA Tour since the 2008 Players. If you find it somewhat odd that a player could go that long without even factoring at a big event – and still earn the title of BPWM, you’re probably not alone.

He was my top choice, however, mainly because Garcia has always been held to a much higher standard than everyone else. As the first and most heralded of the post-Woods phenoms, he was supposed to win five or six majors, and for a while there in the early 2000s, he was a lock to win two or three.

No other BPWM candidate was chained to such exorbitant expectations.