Tiger will not let you sound the alarms. Before this year he won 30.66% of his PGA Tour starts. Now, two events into his 2009 season, his win rate has dropped to 30.37%. Have you ever seen the man panic? You have not. And he's not sweating it now.
Woods played two 16-hole match-play rounds in his first event, the Accenture, and last week he played four stroke-play rounds at Doral, in the CA Championship. His right ankle was a little sore, but he said his surgically repaired left knee was giving him no problems at all. His bunker play was spotty, and something was slightly wrong with his putting intensity, maybe? and still he finished only eight shots behind the winner, Phil Mickelson. Woods's biggest adjustment after his ? 81/2-month layoff, he said, was returning to the Tour's glacial pace of play. At home at Isleworth, playing with a buddy or two in carts, Woods said, he completes a round in under two hours. If you hit the ball the way Tiger does, you would too.
One night at one of the Doral bars there was a swing coach watching Tiger play on a TV screen and imitating his supposed inability to finish a swing. Here's a news flash, Coach: The worst swing Tiger made last week is better than the best swing you've ever made in your life. He's Tiger Woods. He won the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by 15 shots. He won a second U.S. Open at Bethpage in 2002 and his third U.S. Open at another public course, Torrey Pines in San Diego, on one leg. Remember?
U.S. Opens will wear you out like a nine-course meal. By the dessert course your forehead is on the table. Tiger's skill is still all there, of course. What we don't know, and what he doesn't likely know yet himself, is whether his otherworldly drive is back following the layoff. After the physical and mental thrill of his U.S. Open epic last year and the deflating period of idleness, playing for money and another notch on the belt, as he did last week, must be difficult. Tiger's been playing hard for 25 years. He's an old 33.
He played with Ernie Els on Sunday. While they waited for a green to clear, Tiger practiced his putting stroke with a long iron. He had the right playing partner but the wrong tee time. There was too much light in the sky for Tiger to be on 16 on a Sunday. But he didn't feel that he was behind schedule. When he came in, Woods said, "I've been away so long, I figured it would take me a lot longer to get back."
Back for Tiger means only one thing.