WINDERMERE, Fla. – Remember when Tiger Woods mercilessly choked new growth?
Remember when he towered so formidably over the game that young talent couldn’t blossom in his shadow?
Remember when his beatdowns stunted youthful ambition before it could threaten his dominion?
Tiger’s shadow is practically a playground for up-and-coming young stars now.
We saw it again Friday at the Hero World Challenge, where Tiger is host. We saw it with Patrick Reed putting up a 9-under-par 63 playing alongside Woods, who shot 70. Reed did so while wearing a Tigeresque red-and-black ensemble, no less.
We saw youthful ambition thriving alongside Tiger early this year at Torrey Pines, where Jordan Spieth put up a 63 playing with him. We saw it again a week later, when Rory McIlroy put up a 63 playing with Tiger at Dubai. And again when Luke Guthrie posted a 65 playing with him at the Honda Classic.
Yes, Tiger wasn’t himself this year. He was practically defenseless, hobbled with a bad back, but if he remembers anything beside his pain this season, it’s probably how much the game’s young stars liked showing off in front of him. Or how much fun they had playing with him.
Maybe that’s a good thing, a little extra motivation to push Woods through the work needed to get ready for next year and his first start that will mean something since returning from injury. Maybe it’s a good thing with his 39th birthday coming in a few weeks, a little therapy for a competitive spirit that may need rehabbing too with Jack Nicklaus’ record still four major championships away and all these confident kids in his way.
This week isn’t really about trying to beat Reed, Spieth or anyone else for Woods. It’s about getting back in shape to beat all these kids and everybody else when it matters most. It’s about getting his game in shape to win majors again with so much more youthful ambition now standing in his way.
In becoming such a dominant force and golf icon, Woods created a monster for himself today. Actually, he created some monsters.
“Back when everyone was really struggling when they were playing with Tiger, that was when he was also just absolutely dominating the game,” Reed said. “I feel like now, because of how mentally strong he was, and us growing up watching that, and how he played, I feel like a lot of young guys now have the same mentality. Don't really care who they're playing with."
Woods said what you would expect him to say after his round. He said he hopes to put together a couple low rounds and win this event. He obviously wasn’t feeling the best Friday. He battled coughing spells through his round but put up a score seven shots better than he did in the opening round.
As a rehab assignment goes, though, and that’s what this really is for Woods, Friday was about more rust removal and refining the swing changes he’s making with Chris Como as his consultant.
“Really didn't feel that much different than yesterday,” Woods said. “I hit probably two less worse shots than I did yesterday, but I struck the ball solid yesterday, and I did again today. But, I think that, obviously, I hit them a little bit closer today and made a couple putts.”
Woods calls his swing a new “old” swing because he’s trying to go back to fundamentals he relied upon in his youth. He said his swing changes after winning the ’97 Masters took the longest to become comfortable with.
“I don't foresee it being a two-year process like it did back then,” Woods said. “That was a completely new pattern. This is something that I have done before and something my body is starting to recognize. As you look at the speed I'm starting to generate again, I'm starting to get that ball out there. That's very exciting.”
Woods swing looked good again. Throw out his wayward drive into the water at the seventh, and this was a solid effort for his second competitive round in four months. He hit 10 of 14 fairways and 13 greens in regulation.
The short game was a little better Friday, but a long way from where he needs it. A day after chunking four chips, he had some issues again. At the eighth green, he clumsily bladed a chip across the green, leaving himself a 60-foot putt for par. It led to his first bogey. At the 18th, he chunked a chip short of the green, then hit a mediocre bump-and-run, leading to a closing double bogey.
Woods said his swing changes have led to changes in his short game, too.
“It’s not very good,” Woods said. “That’s part of going through the swing changes. Chip shot is a smaller version, so this is a different pattern than I’ve been using and it’s showing up. It’s not quite ready yet. Just going to take more time.”
Woods will need more time to get himself ready for McIlroy, Spieth, Reed and other young stars eager to show off in front of him in the coming year. He doesn’t need to cast a shadow again that stifles young growth. He just needs to beat these kids, and they’re showing they aren’t going to make it easy on him.