AKRON, Ohio – Add another list of numbers to show how much has changed in the world of Tiger Woods.
Geoff Ogilvy ran across a bookmaker’s odds for the Bridgestone Invitational when he noticed Woods at 20-to-1. This would only be startling because Woods hasn’t competed in three months while letting injuries to his left leg fully heal. In this case, however, Ogilvy considered that Woods has won a record seven times at Firestone, and until last year had never finished worse than fifth.
“Did you think you could ever get Tiger at Firestone at 20-1? Ever?” Ogilvy said to one of the caddies. “He was on 2-to-1 for a while.”
Then he paused on the putting green, which was filled with players getting ready for a World Golf Championship that starts on Thursday.
The goal for Woods is to restore some normalcy, at least to his own game. He is coming up on the two-year anniversary of his last win on American soil. The last time he faced any competition inside the ropes, it lasted no more than nine holes at The Players Championship until he withdrew because of leg injuries.
Now, he claims he is as healthy as he has been in years – he wouldn’t say how many years, just “plural.” He has looked solid in a nine-hole practice round alone on Tuesday, and with Hunter Mahan and Arjun Atwal on Wednesday. Then again, practice rounds haven’t always been a good indicator for Woods, except at Pebble Beach and St. Andrews in the summer of 2000.
What to expect Thursday? Not even Woods knows.
“I still haven’t been in a competitive environment yet, so that’s a totally different atmosphere,” he said.
The Bridgestone Invitational features a 76-man field, which includes only four past champions in the 11-year history of this WGC event at Firestone – one win each for defending champion Mahan, Stewart Cink and Darren Clarke, and seven titles for Woods.
But that was the old Woods, the guy who won at least one World Championship every year since 1999.
The recovering Woods?
He said his expectation was to win, just like always. Some of his peers, who have seen his action over 20 winless months and haven’t seen him the past three months, aren’t so sure.
“No one expects him to come out and play well,” U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy said. “I’m sure he expects himself to come out and play and compete, but given the length of layoff and considering that he’s only been able to hit full shots for the last two weeks or whatever, it would be an unbelievable effort if he was to come back and compete. But I think just get through 72 holes and maybe finish top 20 would be a really good effort.”
After playing the back nine under gray clouds, Mahan said this about Woods on Twitter: “The swing looks great and the knee looks even better.”
Then again, Mahan is slightly biased because both employ Sean Foley as a swing coach.
Whatever the expectations, the level of curiosity about Woods is close to what it was when he returned from his sex scandal at the 2010 Masters. There was something about the way he left The Players Championship on May 12 that made it look as though he would never be the same, that the four surgeries on his left knee would keep him from dominating the way he once did.
Three months later, there was a confidence with Woods when he spoke about his health, and being patient to let his legs heal properly.
“I think for some of the young guys, they’ve never seen Tiger Woods play Tiger Woods golf,” Mahan said. “They’ve never even come close to seeing it. I don’t think he has to prove anything, but I think he’s one of those guys, kind of like (Michael) Jordan, he takes every single thing that someone says and he’s going to turn it into this massive gas on a fire that he’s got burning right now. I think he’s ready, man.
“A motivated Tiger and someone who has a challenge in front of him is a good thing for him.”
Woods tees off at 1:40 p.m. with Clarke, a longtime friend who last month captured his first major at the British Open. Two groups behind them will be Adam Scott, noteworthy only because Scott now uses Steve Williams, whom Woods fired as a caddie a month ago. Woods is using Bryon Bell, a childhood friend who last worked for him six years ago at Disney.
Another reunion occurred during his practice round when he put his old Scotty Cameron putter – the one he used in 13 major wins – back in his bag. Whether it stays there won’t be known until he tees off.
The field is comprised of the last Ryder Cup team members from both sides, selected winners on six tours around the world and the top 50 in the world ranking. Firestone South looks as strong as ever, with rough framing the tree-lined fairways and greens that are as pure as ever.
It’s a World Golf Championship, with an even greater prize waiting next week in Atlanta for the PGA Championship.
This week could go a long way in determining whether Woods can be a factor, there, too. Once a sure thing at Firestone, he now is an unknown.
“It would be maybe a little intimidating if you knew for sure that he was going to come back and play the way he did in 2000 or 2001,” McIlroy said. “But who knows for sure what way the game is going to go?”