“You look at statistics and go ‘Wait a second. This guy was the best. He was pretty much in the top 10 of every single category we had. But he's not anymore.’ That tells me a story. Why is that happening? Why does he keep breaking?” the Tour’s funnyman-turned-Tiger-antagonist said Tuesday.
There is 14, the Grand Slam haul Woods has been stalled on for more than three years, and 77, his opening round at the PGA Championship. There is 66, his best competitive rounds of the year (Masters and WGC-Cadillac Championship), and 62, his best casual round of the calendar which he posted last week at his south Florida home club.
And, of course, there is 51, his spot in the World Golf Ranking, although it should be noted that he’s closer to No. 1 Luke Donald (7.965 points) than No. 2 Phil Mickelson was to then-No. 1 Woods on Sept. 27, 2009 (8.211).
Perhaps even more telling is 21, the official number of Tour starts since his last “Big League” victory, the longest such drought of his storied career, and 10, his Grand Slam starts since his last major “W,” which equals the longest schneid of his career.
Or maybe, if the sights and sounds from Wednesday’s tune-up for this week’s Frys.com Open are any indication, the most important number is 61 percent, the total number of tee shots that found short grass last year at CordeValle.
There are a lot of reasons for Woods to play this week – not the least of which was U.S. Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples’ not-so-subtle urging and persistent rumors that Woods may sign an endorsement deal with the electronics giant – but the fact that CordeValle ranked 31st on Tour last year out of 50 courses in driving accuracy is the best reason to date to be optimistic the former alpha male is finally trending in the desired direction.
“It’s always easy to come back from a layoff when you know what to do. I’ve done that before,” Woods said. “But I’m implementing a new golf swing and in order to do that you have to get the reps in and I haven’t gotten the reps in. I have to hit thousands of balls to do that where it feels natural. I’ve done that now.”
His swing coach Sean Foley echoed that optimism earlier in the day when he talked with Golf Channel’s “Morning Drive” crew, pointing out his man has reached something closer to critical mass in the weeks since those dark days at Atlanta Athletic Club.
“We had to be more technical in the past because he couldn’t get the rep count. In order to not let the thing flatten out underneath him he had to be thinking of a lot of things. That’s not what you want to be doing,” Foley said. “At the end of the day that’s what we had because there were so many starts and stops the last year and how much he could practice. But since the PGA Championship he’s been fully cleared with his health.”
By many social media accounts, Woods’ game during Wednesday’s pro-am was as erratic as we’ve come to expect. One observer tweeted that Woods hit just eight fairways and 12 greens in regulation during his warm-up.
But pro-am rounds and warm-and-fuzzy 62s back home in south Florida really won’t mean much when Woods steps between the ropes on Thursday. Foley has become the ultimate “person of interest” when it comes to Woods, and while the thoughtful Canadian doesn’t need a defense team it is worth noting that Woods has played just 11 events on the new guy’s watch.
“I don’t think you’d be that impressed with the changes I’d made with Hunter (Mahan) and (Justin Rose) after 11 events,” Foley said. “Given the right amount of time, which no one wants to hear, we’re going to do just great.”
According to Foley the plan this week, and likely beyond, is simple, with a focus on “imagining the clubface is square for the whole golf swing” and smoothing out his transition and rhythm.
It isn’t Foley on the clock this week in California. That honor belongs to Woods. This week’s stop is not an altruistic cameo for the sake of the Tour’s Fall Series, or a make-good for a potential sponsor, so much as it is a rehab start on a rebuilt left leg and swing.
Woods is quick to point out he’s been here before. He’s dealt with injury and a new action, to say nothing of the public scrutiny that comes with both, but never at the same time, or with the same level of urgency.
“You can do whatever you want on the range, but playing thoughts are a little bit different,” Woods said. “That’s one of the reasons why I’ve been playing so much. I’ve started to turn the corner. I was starting to shoot some really good rounds (at the Medalist). That was fun to post a 62. It was a pretty easy round.”
On Wednesday Woods spoke of “playing feel” and “playing instincts,” missing elements to the larger picture for some time, and if his regimen at the Medalist the last few weeks is any indication the previously mysterious should start becoming mundane.
But now he’s officially on the clock, which should be easy enough considering he announced his first major U.S.-market post-November 2009 endorsement deal on Wednesday with Rolex, on a golf course he’s never played with a caddie, however experienced, who is learning the new boss on the fly.
“The major overhauls are done. I’ve done all the work. Now it’s just fine tuning. That’s day to day and shot to shot. That’s part of the challenge,” said Woods, who told his doctors in the weeks leading up to this year’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational he needed 10-plus rounds to “turn this around.”
Which leaves just one number that really counts – eight. That’s how many competitive rounds, at best, Woods will have before he tees off at November’s Presidents Cup. Woods, Couples and the rest of the U.S. team are hoping that’s enough.