AKRON, Ohio – If Tiger Woods has learned anything from the last 20 odd months it has been how to take a punch, if not a punch line.
Standing “eight counts” have become the status quo from a curious public that has grown accustomed to hoping for the best but expecting the worst, from a contentious media that has seemingly lost interest in the benefit of the doubt, from a game that has ebbed and flowed with alarming regularity.
Yet of all of Woods’ setbacks since November 2009 this most recent cosmic haymaker may have been the one that caused the most soul searching, at least professionally. On the morning of May 12 he stepped to the practice tee at TPC Sawgrass to prepare for the first round in the game’s faux major and he and swing coach Sean Foley could only smile.
“I had it at TPC,” he beamed on Tuesday at Firestone. “It’s the best I’d hit it in a while and then I got hurt.”
He got hurt, you see, because he’s a knucklehead. To be fair, he also made one-legged history at the 2008 U.S. Open because of that same “knucklehead” gene. You know the story, doctors assemble in Woods’ Isleworth home to advise him not to play the national championship at Torrey Pines, Woods informs the MDs that not only is he playing but he’s going to win. Cut the scene, fade to black.
Now fast forward to Woods post-2011 Masters – hobbled by an ailing left knee and tattered Achilles’ tendon. Different doctors, same message, same defiant swagger. But this time Woods doesn’t win on one leg, he doesn’t contend, he doesn’t even make it past the turn on Thursday.
That front-nine 42 at Sawgrass and fast exit must have done a real number on the world’s 28th-ranked player. They say Woods is an “old” 35 years old, whatever that means, and he certainly sounded a bit wiser on Tuesday at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational when asked the status of his assorted ailments.
“I came back and played The Players,” he said. “If I’d have sat out a week or two I’d have been able to play this stretch.”
This “stretch” is the competitive equivalent of “go time,” as young Rickie Fowler would say. This “stretch” included the U.S. Open, played on a course (Congressional) where Woods had won before, and the British Open. For those keeping score that “stretch” is what counts more so than the FedEx Cup playoff, which Woods is currently not qualified for, or West Coast Swing or the Presidents Cup.
In Woods’ dogged drive to Jack Nicklaus’ gold standard of 18 majors he cost himself two grand slam starts. Motivational speakers say we learn more from our failures than we do from our victories, a truth Woods put to the test through his first dozen years as a professional. Yet to hear the man talk on Tuesday it is clear Woods is done with the machismo of the short view.
Even during his 11 weeks of rehab and rest, Woods sounded as if he was surprisingly calm, if not the model patient. He flirted with the idea of coming off the “DL” at last week’s Greenbrier Classic but was advised to stay on the sidelines by his medical team.
“It gets hard when you’re on the cusp of going. You’re like, ‘I feel like I can go,’” Woods figured. But the payoff came via a quick nine holes on Tuesday at Firestone.
Just before 7 a.m. Woods teed off with longtime friend Bryon Bell on the bag and swing coach Sean Foley at his side. He wasn’t “on,” missing three of his first four fairways, but then that’s the beauty of practice – you don’t have to count ’em all.
“It’s Tuesday,” Woods figured. “It’s not a competitive environment, but the shot lines were crisp and tight . . . it feels good to hit balls and feel nothing (in his left leg).”
If Woods sounded pleased with his play on Tuesday on the South Course, Foley was equally optimistic, if not a bit more guarded.
“I never have any expectations,” said Foley, who travelled to south Florida last Thursday and Friday to work with Woods on the practice tee for the first time since The Players. “The fairways he missed were 5 yards off and the ones he hit were miles down there. His ball-striking is sharp, just give it time and let the Spidey senses come back.”
Call it a soft opening, a measured returned from a lock-out of an altogether different sort.
The real tell, of course, will come on Thursday, when he is forced to make the leap from “practice speed to game speed,” as one longtime Tour trainer called it.
Woods’ post-Players learning curve only goes so far, however. For those viewing the Bridgestone, which he has won seven times, as a rehab start know this – the World Golf Championship is neither a “simulated game” nor are there any “ball counts.” The time to tinker and ease your way back into the fray is on Tuesday and Wednesday, not Thursday.
When asked what his expectations are for this week Woods, at his stoic best, offered only five words, “Same as always, hasn’t changed.” Unsaid, but understood, the expectation is to win.
After 20 months of taking punches, Woods sounded like a man who is finally ready to start landing some of his own.