A few years ago, I served as a backup beat writer for MLB.com. During that stint I covered many of the secondary stories for the Atlanta Braves – the unsung heroes, the prospects, the terrible opponents. The most common assignments, however, were the injury updates, and that year the Braves had no shortage of them. Blisters and obliques. Ankles and shoulders. Exploding hamstrings and elbows.
In May 2008, my editor sent me to north Georgia to watch future Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz make his final rehab start for the Class-A Rome Braves. A few days earlier the then-41-year-old had been rocked in just one inning of work, but he’d reported no signs of shoulder discomfort.
That, of course, was the most significant takeaway: In rehab assignments, health always trumped results. Though players admittedly were rusty, if they could get through a DL stint without incident, without a setback, then the box score mattered little.
Anyway, on this night, Smoltz entered in the eighth inning, threw 13 pitches, exited to a standing ovation from the 5,105 fans in attendance, signed a few autographs for the teammates half his age in the dugout and declared himself fit to return, despite lingering soreness and a fastball that hovered in the mid-80s.
I’ve thought about that night a lot this week, because Tiger Woods is making his own minor-league rehab start outside D.C., albeit in front of a decidedly larger audience and with a $6.5 million purse up for grabs.
Like Smoltz, Woods has been medically cleared to return, but, post-surgery, he’s dealing with his new normal. He’s 38, with a banged-up body that surely feels older than that. In baseball parlance, his fastball might not have the same zip on it, but he knows he can still be effective. Athletes evolve.
Tiger won’t win this week’s Quicken Loans National, but that is not cause for alarm. Aces and sluggers don’t come off the DL and immediately resume throwing one-hit shutouts or stringing together multi-homer games. Returning to an All-Star-caliber level takes time, even for the world’s best.
In Smoltz’s case, his comeback proved short-lived. Hours after he was activated off the disabled list, he faced a save situation in the Braves’ game against the Marlins. He gave up three hits and two runs, blew the 4-3 lead and complained afterward of discomfort. Two days later, at a hastily called news conference, he announced that he was undergoing season-ending surgery. Smoltz was never the same player again.
For his sake (and the sport in general), let’s hope Tiger enjoys a different outcome. More important than how he scores this week is how he feels. In rehab assignments, health always trumps results.
Your mailbag questions for the week:
#AskLav: Do you think Tiger’s recent back surgery will affect his style of play? – Randall Daigle, via Instagram
Popular question, apparently. Earlier this week Tiger conceded that he wouldn’t go full bore on shots at Congressional, that his explosiveness hadn’t yet returned. You’ll know when it does – it’s a more violent game. Woods will still be able to score, but he’ll have to do so differently, relying on course management and strategy. His short game should be plenty sharp too, after a few months of only chipping and putting.
At first, mental – he’ll have to learn to trust his body again. That’s why it’s so important for him to play four rounds this week, to get some reps. Once that hurdle is cleared, his focus will return to the physical – to swinging and scoring and competing.
Hmm, how do I put this … not good? He may have a new love and appreciation for links golf, but that doesn’t obscure the fact that Phil has been out of sorts all season long. He struck the ball well enough to put himself in contention at Pinehurst, but once again he fell apart on the greens. This season he’s ranked 107th in strokes gained-putting, and if that doesn’t improve he won’t win a tournament in the States, overseas or even in his backyard.
#AskLav: Is Tiger a realistic contender for the Open Championship now that he has returned from injury? – Gareth Judge, via Instagram
Obviously we’ll have a better idea after this week, but right now, on the spot, I’d say no. Yes, his game plan in ’06 was predicated on the burned-out conditions, but when Tiger won at Hoylake he put on an absolute ball-striking clinic. He’s likely too rusty to replicate that performance this year. There are a few things working in his favor, however: The Open is the flukiest of the majors, in terms of bounces and draws and weather, and it’s the only major that doesn’t demand perfection on the greens. Barring any setbacks, I’d expect Tiger to have a better chance to be a factor at Valhalla, where he won in 1999. Even if he is not at 100 percent, Woods will have been practicing regularly for two full months, which is plenty for the best player in the world.
We ask this question all the time on the men’s side after another major champion is crowned. The reality is, it hardly ever happens: Only once in the past seven years has a male player won multiple majors in a season. Sure, the competition isn’t quite as deep on the LPGA, but the caliber of winners this season – from Inbee Park to Stacy Lewis to Lexi Thompson to Lydia Ko – shows that it’s harder than ever to win on the women’s tour. As great as Michelle Wie is playing this season – second in scoring average, third in greens hit, third in putts per GIR – and with three, not two, more majors to play, the fact remains that it’s hard to win the Big Ones and she’s battling a lot of worthy competitors. She’ll contend in one or two but nonetheless go 0-for-3 at the season’s remaining majors.
#AskLav: How many tournaments will TW play in this year? His presence is undeniable. – @Addiq001, via Instagram
This year? Well, he could play in several more, which would allow him to salvage a year that only a few weeks ago seemed lost. This season? Well, the season ends in September, and assuming he stays healthy, he’ll probably make four starts between now and the end of the regular season: Quicken Loans, Open, Bridgestone, PGA. Currently, he’s No. 209 on the FedEx Cup points list, just ahead of Alex Prugh. If he performs well enough in his next four tournaments, Tiger will reach the playoffs. If he doesn’t, he’ll be on the sidelines for a month and a half by the time the Ryder Cup rolls around, which would only put his spot on the team in further jeopardy. It’s not yet clear if he will join Rory at the season-opening Frys.com Open, but one start is certain: The Oct. 21-26 Americas Golf Cup in Argentina. He could make another appearance or two overseas and then close out the year, like usual, at his own tournament. In other words, we could see plenty of Tiger, health permitting.