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Woods' rustiness showed in his short game

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WINDERMERE, Fla. – In case you hadn’t heard, Tiger Woods has been working on his swing lately.

He’s been focusing on his fast-twitch muscles. His motor patterns. His explosiveness. His traj. His reps. His speed. His feels. He’s making adjustments. Generating force. Hitting his numbers.

In advance of this week’s Hero World Challenge, all of the usual buzzwords were buzzing around Woods in his return from a four-month competitive absence because of a back injury.

All of the usual buzzwords, that is, except for two.

Short game.

Woods’ opening-round 5-over 77 wasn’t just four strokes worse than anybody else in the 18-man field. It was an exhibition of rustiness and an exploration into what happens when so many of those swing thoughts come to fruition without the benefit of a formidable game around the greens.

All told, he left five greenside wedge shots short of the actual greens, chunking four of them and leaving a bunker shot in the sand. If his ball-striking – which included 8-of-14 fairways and 11-of-18 greens in regulation – was a newfound bright spot during this latest comeback attempt, his short game was a dark crater of unfulfilled intentions.

“It certainly is surprising that I hit chip shots that poorly,” sighed Woods after the round. “I was just awful. I just made too many mistakes and mainly they were around the green.”

Not that we should be surprised. Woods warned us prior to his first round since the PGA Championship that we should expect some rustiness. Well, he was right.

His bunker shot on the seventh hole hit the lip and stayed in.

Then he flubbed a chip on the next hole. And two more five holes later. And another four holes after that.

He had more chili-dips than a tailgate party.

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“I have a nice facility in my backyard, so I can’t say it’s for the lack of practicing,” he explained. “I just haven’t faced grain this thick. My short-game area is very tight. It got a little stickier in the longer grass around the greens and I just hit horrible chips.”

Logic states that this was a horrifically poor performance, even with the rust. In his time away from hitting full shots, Woods should have had more time to work on his short game; and Isleworth is a course on which he’s played hundreds of previous rounds; and, let’s face it, no elite golfer should leave five greenside shots short of the green on any course on the planet – especially one with 14 career major championships on his resume.

Where that logic goes awry is when it tries to connect those dots to his future prospects.

Like so many critiques of Woods’ game, too much will be read into this one. Anyone trying to read the tea leaves of his first competitive round in 119 days, though, should stop short of theorizing that a domino effect could leave his short game in shambles for not just the remaining three rounds, but going forward toward the 2015 campaign.

Instead, the main takeaway from Thursday afternoon is that it’s going to take more than a healthy body to thrust Woods back onto leaderboards.

Any notion that he could simply rest, recover, recuperate and rebound was left in the divots of those stubbed and flubbed chip shots.

The other lesson is a reminder that short game shouldn’t be overlooked or underrated. Much of the public speculation during the past few weeks has centered around his new working relationship with “consultant” Chris Como and a swing that Woods cryptically described as “new … but it’s old.” A video of this move through the ball went viral on social media Monday in advance of this event, so many observers impatiently and passionately clicking on a quick, driving range tee shot.

Three days later, we realized that maybe we should have been snooping around for video of short wedge shots instead – not that we would have seen anything unseemly.

“Monday he was chipping fine; his short game was on point,” said Jason Day, his opening-round playing partner. “It was just surprising today to see him stub a lot of chip shots. Uphill into the grain is very difficult, but to see that many out of Tiger Woods is very surprising.”

In his first round back, Woods’ swing looked improved in most of those buzzwordy ways he so often speaks – from his explosiveness to his traj to his speed to his feels.

The phrase he didn’t use much in the lead-up to this return was short game. And on Thursday, it showed.