LA JOLLA, CA_ There’s little question that Tiger Woods still commands the epicenter of attention in the golf world. I was covering my 30th PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando and once I saw his birdie putt drop to make his first cut since August of 2015 it was time to head to the airport and see the remaining 36-holes in person.
The 42-year-old had been on the sidelines for almost a year given his fourth major surgery on his back. Playing in his own event in the Bahamas in early December really meant nothing since the event featured a limited field with no 36-hole cut.
The Tiger who came to Torrey Pines – a facility where has won no less than eight times — including the ’08 US Open — was totally fit and looked comfortable strolling the fairways.
Not only did he make the cut but his position on the leaderboard improved each day. Tiger also showed a high degree in working through difficult positions — grinding a score when one’s ball striking is not airtight. Hit putting wasn’t flawless but he was one of only five players to go the entire week without a three-putt. However, the acumen Woods showed with his short game was a true marvel to behold. In previous tournaments where he competed there were serious concerns Tiger had the “chipping yips” and would not be able to get beyond them. That was not the case at Torrey.
The main concern remains Tiger’s inability to hit fairway. For the week at Torrey Pines — Woods hit only 17 of 56 fairways. His worst effort ever in a PGA TOUR event and tied for last among the 77 players who made the cut. It’s not a stretch to say when Tiger stands on a tee he will need a compass to find here his ball lands. Woods has been fighting his driver for quite some time. The inability to get his ball in play may not have hurt him as much at Torrey but it’s more than likely will derail him of any serious effort to successfully content in future events – most notably in major championships where driving skill is a must.
Woods is not comfortable in working the ball in both directions. Often, Tiger relied on a push or “block” sequence which caused him to lose the ball to the far right. Getting a driver swing sequence where Woods has total control of ball movement will be critical and of clear interest when he returns to PGA TOUR action at the Genesis Open at famed Riviera CC, just outside Los Angeles, on February 15.
The interesting dimension of Woods return to action was clearly reflected in television ratings which were up significantly from the year prior. There’s little question Tiger still commands major presence not only with golf fans but general sports fans too.
The remaining question, yet to be fully answered — is whether Woods is capable to return to contention — not only in regular TOUR events but in the four major championships. The record in his past efforts has been anything but good. His last three majors played in ’15 all featured missed cuts. Tiger’s last top ten in a major came in ’13 at The Open Championship when he finished tied for 6th.
It’s hard to imagine that the last major win came nearly ten years ago — at Torrey Pines. When Tiger plays at Augusta this year — assuming his health allows him to do so — it will be the first back on the grounds in Georgia since ’15. Amazingly, his last green jacket triumph came in ’05 when he won his fourth green jacket.
The intimidation presence in the early years is long gone. The newer crop of players do not have any direct memories or the mental baggage when Tiger routinely stomped on all competitors. One need only ask the likes of Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els to recount the times they were on the receiving end.
The comeback is one of the great American sports storylines.
Tiger accomplished a small, but meaningful, climb with his play at Torrey Pines. Much more work needs to be done and Woods will need to demonstrate the wherewithal to go from just making cuts to being in contention. Returning to Riviera for the first time since 2006 will be an interesting intersection.
A classic course, rightly revered by many, serving as the host site for golf’s former star searching for greatness again. Hollywood could not ask for a better script. Ben Hogan made his return to competition in January 1950 after nearly being killed in an auto accident and nearly won the event over rival Sam Snead in a hotly contested playoff. Can Tiger equal or surpass that?
Woods clearly relishes being back on the course. His play at Riviera will indeed say a good deal more on whether his journey continues to progress and prepare him for what will likely be a defining year in his career.