THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – The famed Santa Ana winds are forecast to shatter the Southern Cal tranquility with gusts north of 35 mph for the first two days of action at the Chevron World Challenge.
It’s a condition that’s caused by the convergence of hot and cold air, or so it was explained to your dimwitted correspondent, and an altogether flawless metaphor for the crossroads where Tiger Woods now finds himself.
In the span of four weeks the Chevron’s host has gone from project to projected winner. Two solid weeks in Oz and a press corps with short-term memories issues will do that.
Like the expected Santa Ana gale, Woods is sailing at the moment, at least compared to where he was at this juncture last year. One member of “Team Tiger” pointed out during Wednesday’s pro-am at Sherwood Country Club that there is a spring back in the former No. 1’s step that has been missing for some time.
Let’s be clear, even a win this week at Woods’ 18-man member-member will not declare mission accomplished – not after two winless and injury-riddled calendars. Even Woods knows that.
“There’s always more to go,” he smiled. “That’s the beauty of golf.”
Thursday’s gale will not so much be the winds of change as much as the mark of a change in outlook for Woods. Last year at Chevron he had one trick, a draw, the byproduct of a swing that still had that new-car smell and an instructional manual from swing coach Sean Foley he hadn’t entirely digested.
His playoff loss to a hot-handed Graeme McDowell felt like progress, but he knew he was much closer to the starting line than the finished product. He didn’t play again until Torrey Pines in January followed by the Dubai Desert Classic, where he struggled with a one-dimensional game and closed with a wind-whipped 75 to finish tied for 20th.
“Anybody who makes swing changes, you get exposed in the wind,” Woods said. “At Dubai I felt I should have won the tournament; a right-to-left wind cost me eight shots on certain holes. I didn’t have the ability to maneuver the ball left to right.”
Now, however, he’s put in the “reps” and the “traj” is where he wants it – TrackMan and a pair of ball-striking clinics in Australia say so. At the Australian Open he hit the ball well enough to win but largely putted like the guy who finishes 20th. A week later at the Presidents Cup his 2-3-0 record veiled another solid week tee to green through three seasons and as many different winds.
From his vantage point in central Florida Foley watched the happenings Down Under with no small amount of satisfaction. If Dubai’s winds earlier this year exposed Woods’ weaknesses, the conditions and competition in Australia were the best sign to date Woods was headed in the right direction.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do, but there are lot of positive signs. There’s not a lot of people who can flight it like that,” Foley said. “Accuracy and control over distance and trajectory is a beautiful thing.”
Yet what Foley has learned over the last year is that with Woods baby steps are perceived as a weakness. Third place at the Australian Open may look like a beauty queen but with Woods everything is magnified – his failures and successes.
For all the wrong reasons, the man whose career is compared to the greatness of the game’s ghosts is graded on an impossibly grandiose scale. He doesn’t have to win every week, he must win big.
“He looks good but it’s tough for people to understand because if he doesn’t make five hole-in-ones and six eagles he’s played bad,” Foley said. “I look at performance and development academically.”
If the bar has been set unrealistically high Woods has come by it honestly. Maybe the greatest magic trick he ever pulled off was making us believe it was easy. Fourteen majors in 13 seasons, a U.S. Open victory on one leg, it all looked as effortless as that toothy smile.
For over a decade he’d swoop in, collect every piece of hardware available and slip behind the gates of Isleworth to count his millions, or so it seemed. Lost in that equation were the countless hours it took to perfect his trade. Now we know the truth.
Since teaming with Foley before last year’s PGA Championship Woods has reminded anyone who would listen that his previous upgrades with Hank Haney and Butch Harmon before that took two years or more, which is why his current confidence is worth noting.
Some 15 months into the Foley Experiment Woods is sounding like a man who not only understands the new action but knows how to fix it when things go sideways.
“I’d play poorly for a couple holes and not know what the fix was,” Woods said. “Now it’s immediate.”
At the Chevron on Wednesday, Woods’ last official start of the year, there was a simmering satisfaction that went well beyond his chances at Sherwood. Gone are the “ball counts” that limited his practice following his injury-induced exit from this year’s Players Championship and the uncertainty of a private life that had become far too public for his liking.
Next year will be Woods’ first full season on Tour since 2009 and probably the first he’s looked forward to in some time. As surely as the Santa Ana winds will tear through the California canyons on Thursday, Woods’ attitude has shifted. It’s time now to see if his game follows.
Follow the Chevron World Challenge on Golf Channel and NBC. Airtimes: Golf Channel, 3-6 PM and 8:30-11:30 PM ET Thursday and Friday, 1-3 PM ET Saturday and Sunday. NBC, 3-6 PM and 8:30-11:30 PM ET Saturday and Sunday.