JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – “Our anniversary on Tuesday,” Sean Foley smiled. Not that it’s felt like a year since the affable Canadian joined Team Tiger.
For those searching for perspective, or context, in Tiger Woods’ last calendar there is little of either to be found, the byproduct of a fits-and-spurts existence that has been slowed by injury and defined by a scorecard that is best dubbed incomplete.
For the record, Woods has played 11 official PGA Tour events on Foley’s watch. That’s not even a good spring for most players.
Some critics say Woods is still searching for answers, but the truth is he probably couldn’t even start asking the right questions until three weeks ago when doctors cleared him to start hitting full shots. Other athletes play through pain. Woods himself limped his way to U.S. Open glory in ’08 at Torrey Pines, but this time was different. The mind was willing, the ailing Achilles tendon was willful.
“I was trying to block out pain,” Woods said on Wednesday at Atlanta Athletic Club. “That’s not a lot of fun to play through. It’s nice to have a kind of bounce in my step again and walk around these hills and not have to worry about hills.”
For a dozen odd years Woods’ only competitive focus was history. For the last dozen odd months “public enemy No. 1” has been hills, a truth that may also explain the bounce in Foley’s step this week.
A punchbowl existence was always part of the job description, an occupational reality when one has been entrusted with what may become the game’s most-prolific action. A 35-year-old left leg that has more scar tissue than a cadaver simply compounded that reality.
“What we have now is Tiger’s blueprint and getting his swing in the position where he can be himself, a creative, artistic feel player,” Foley said following his morning session on Wednesday with Woods at the PGA Championship.
“It’s all about the shot right now. I think that’s really cool that he’s into his target and not his technique.”
Foley sees a player who is no longer painting by numbers. A player who is seeing and executing shots, not drills. Whether that produces his first Tour title since that historic victory at Torrey Pines in ’08 remains to be seen. What is certain is that both Woods and Foley are finally asking, and answering, the right questions.
“This is the fun part,” Woods said of this week’s PGA, triple-digit heat index and all. It’s an interesting take for Woods considering that everything up to now has felt like work, that as recently as the Masters he was “frustrated.” Pain will do that. A body that no longer seemed to be playing for the same team will do that.
In hindsight the long drive back to central Florida after his front-nine 42 and early exit at TPC Sawgrass may have been every bit the epiphany moment at the metaphorical crossroads.
Skeptics considered Woods’ most-recent hiatus another speed bump on a road that’s become littered with them. In retrospect this trip to the “DL” may end up being a crucial turning point in his quest for Jack Nicklaus’ historic haul of 18 grand slam titles.
Consider that after Torrey Pines he really had no other choice than the surgeon’s knife, but this time he could have limped along almost indefinitely, clinging to the outdated notion that injury and pain are part of the process. Instead, he listened to doctors and went on the shelf.
“For him to take three months off to assure the big picture is huge,” Foley said.
Three months on the couch also seemed to instill a measure of perspective into Woods, who has eschewed the long view for competitive blinders for much of his career. If ever he needed a dollop of patience it is now, fresh off the “DL” with a new swing that still has that new-car smell and a stand-in caddie on what may end up being the year’s toughest test.
“I came off of (knee surgery) in ’08 going into ’09, I was still under the same coach, same theories, same everything. I just had to get back to it,” Woods said. “Down the road if I would have gotten hurt and still been under Sean’s tutelage for years then that’s a different story. I could pick up from there. Here I’m still learning things.”
Woods doesn’t play the “what if” game often, but it was an assessment that must have been music to Foley’s ears. It’s a chicken or fried egg scenario, there was never going to be a full understanding of Woods’ new action without a left leg that was ready for prime time.
“The lead leg is the post,” Foley said of the knee and Achilles’ tendon injury that has sidelined Woods. “Just like in pitching and for a quarterback. Quarterbacks don’t have much success throwing off their back foot.”
On Wednesday Woods offered a quick assessment of his medical status, “pain free.” Good news for Foley and golf and the answer to the age-old question: What do you get a swing coach on your one-year anniversary? For Foley, a healthy left leg will do.