Tiger Woods returns to the PGA Tour this week and for once it’s not a moment too soon.
In the last couple years, Tiger has been repeatedly sidelined by scandal, injuries, marital problems -- we all know the list -- and each time he returned it felt like he was rushing back from something. The 2010 Masters. The 2011 Players Championship. The 2011 PGA Championship. When he returns this week at the Frys.com Open at CordeValle in Northern California, he’ll be coming back on his own timetable.
The dust has finally settled, and I expect Tiger to play well. Everything points toward a good week for Tiger. He’s now had plenty of time to work with new swing coach Sean Foley. If it’s going to work with Foley, then we should start to see it this week. I know it was only a practice round, but that 62 he shot last week at Medalist is a auspicious. The caddie change is good for him too. His relationship with Steve Williams obviously had gotten stale, and Joe LaCava, an experienced caddie whom Tiger knows and respects, is the perfect replacement.
The venue is a great place for him as well. No disrespect to the Frys.com Open, but Tiger won’t have to deal with the pressure of a major this week. Nor will he dominate the media coverage. This isn’t northern Wisconsin; the Bay Area has a lot of other things going on. Tiger should be swinging more comfortably than he has in a long time.
I’ll be watching three things extra-closely this week that should show if Tiger’s on the right path. 1. His driver: I want to see him going at the ball hard and not losing tee shots to the right 2. His health: He should be as healthy as he’s ever going to be. He turns 36 this December -- can you believe that? -- and it never gets any easier coming back from injury. Basically, he’s learning to deal with things that basically hurt all the time. 3. His short game: If he’s going to come back, it’s crucial he look comfortable on and around the greens. We always talk about Phil Mickelson’s brilliance in the short game -- and Mickelson is spectacular -- but when Tiger is on his game no one comes close to his chipping and pitching.
I’m not predicting a win. There’s going to be some rust -- how could there not be -- but I expect him to play well, as well as we’ve seen in a long time. (The Masters is a special case because he’ll always be able to compete on that course.) He’s going to hit some loose shots -- that’s inevitable with a hard swing. The important thing is that he misses correctly. At the height of his game, Tiger could make birdies and pars with his short game from places no one thought possible. His problem this year is that he’s been missing in the wrong places, places where he couldn’t recover from.
It is strange to see Tiger at a Fall Series event. In a lot of ways, it feels like 1996 all over again. His critics in the media and the public aren’t giving him a free pass anymore. Tiger knows a lot of people are writing him off, and I think he feels he has a lot to prove. Even I’ve been skeptical based on what I saw earlier in the year. But this is the perfect scenario: new swing, new caddie, easy tournament. He’s going out there to get his game back. Those of us who’ve watched him since his junior golf days want to see signs that he’s going in the right direction and some flashes of the old Tiger Woods. I don’t want to see him hitting houses, making poor chips, and missing four-footers. If that happens again, it’s time to start really worrying. [Photo credit: Rainier Ehrhardt/The Augusta Chronicle/ZUMAPRESS.com] This story originally appeared in the Golf Magazine Front9 App. To download the weekly app, visit the Apple iTunes store.