In some ways golf has moved on without Tiger Woods. With no guarantee that the former ratings-maker will ever return to form, the PGA Tour finalized its next TV deal last month, a nine-year extension that will yield a modest increase in prize money. We've identified the sport's next Golden One, Rory McIlroy, whose eight-stroke romp at the U.S. Open in June was positively Tiger-like.
But as Woods prepares to return to action at this week's Frys.com Open just south of San Jose, Calif., we can't resist succumbing, at least a little, to the latest developments in the Tiger saga, whatever they may be. How will he play? We haven't seen him in action since he missed the cut at the PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club in August. Is he really washed up? He's still only 35 years old, and more than a year into his latest swing change under coach Sean Foley. Woods has plenty of detractors, but he also has believers — and more than just Joe LaCava, who will make his debut as Tiger's caddie this week, and Rolex, which was announced Wednesday as Tiger's new watch sponsor. (Take that, Tag Heuer!)
"When changing your swing there are steps," says a Tour insider who has followed Tiger's progress by watching him on the driving range. "First you can't do it at all. Then you can do it on the range but not on the course. Then you can do it on the course with your buddies but not in competition. Tiger's at that last stage, where he's got to take it to the course and trust it. I watch him hit balls and it's so crisp, it's beautiful to me. It's going to happen."
Woods reportedly shot a course-record 62 at the Medalist Golf Club in Hobe Sound, Fla., last weekend, which could mean nothing; he also looked very good at the Ryder Cup last fall, and in nearly winning the Chevron Challenge in December. Or it could mean everything, which is why that snippet of news became golf's top talking point by Sunday night.
This is supposed to be a tune-up tournament for Woods, who was cajoled into playing an extra tournament before next month's Presidents Cup by U.S. captain Fred Couples, LaCava's longtime employer before the caddie did a brief stint with Dustin Johnson this year. Woods has never played the Frys.com at the 7,368-yard, par-71 CordeValle Golf Club, a 1999 Robert Trent Jones Jr. design that has enjoyed favorable reviews since making its Tour debut last year. That's when Rocco Mediate holed out from more than 100 yards each day to secure one of the least probable victories on Tour in years. Woods has said the Fall Series event will enable him to meet his goal of adding a new tournament to his schedule this year. That the tournament is so close to where he went to college — Stanford is just an hour or so up the peninsula — doesn't hurt, either.
Indeed, nostalgia plays into every Woods start these days. Remember when he was really, really good — you know, like, two years ago? The Tour has entered a new era, but it's proving to be very hard to let go of the old one, in part because it seems so unlikely that Woods is finished winning, and in part because the new era is not measuring up to the old one. For all of McIlroy's fireworks at Congressional, he injured himself on just the third hole of the PGA Championship, the biggest buzz-kill of the year, and has still won just three times in his career.
Just as the mop-topped Irish sensation won by such a wide margin at the U.S. Open, Woods in his prime left no doubt that we were witnessing excellence by the way he decimated fields. Now, who knows? The party line on Tour has long been that the level of play has gotten so outstanding, the fields so deep, that it's become ridiculously hard to win. According to this line of argument, that's why players must summon something sensational to win, such as a series of one-putts down the stretch (Webb Simpson at the Deutsche Bank), a back-nine 32 (Charl Schwartzel at the Masters), or four crazy hole-outs (Mediate at the Frys.com last year).
We have witnessed unforgettable golf, including an up-and-down from a lake at East Lake (Bill Haas, Tour Championship), and a stirring comeback (Keegan Bradley, PGA Championship) after a late triple bogey, but the fact is it's become much harder to recognize excellence, and that a different player seems to emerge every week is not helping the game. Although it's not really true, parity looks too much like mediocrity, which explains the hope that Woods isn't over the hill, and why, no matter what happens this week, we'll remain in limbo, just one or two good rounds from Tiger-mania, part II, for the foreseeable future.
Short game: Woods will tee off at 3:10 p.m. ET in a threesome that also includes super-amateur Patrick Cantlay of UCLA. ... Bill Lunde, who eagled the Kodak Challenge hole in Las Vegas, is three up with three holes remaining to win the season-long Kodak competition and the $1 million prize. ... Two weeks after the Solheim Cup, the LPGA returns to action at the Hana Bank Championship in Incheon, South Korea. Yani Tseng and Solheim hero Suzann Pettersen will be among the favorites. ... Schwab Cup points leader Tom Lehman headlines at the Champions tour's Insperity Championship presented by UnitedHealthcare. ... John Peterson, the NCAA champion from LSU, will make his professional debut at this week's Children's Hospital Classic on the Nationwide tour, in Chattanooga, Tenn. ... Harris English, who won on the Nationwide as an amateur earlier this season, has already climbed to 79th on the money list after a runner-up finish to Danny Lee in a sudden-death playoff last week. English, who turned pro last month, hopes to qualify for the Nationwide Tour Championship, which takes only the top 60 on the money list. Three tournaments remain in 2011. ... Lee will play in this week's Korean Open in a field that also includes Rory McIlroy, who is coming off a second-place finish at the Dunhill last week. ... Luke Donald leads the list of contenders at the European tour's Madrid Masters.