Tour Confidential: After Tiger’s successful return at the Hero, do expectations change moving forward?

December 3, 2017 conducts a weekly roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and GOLF Magazine. Check in every Sunday night for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com.

1. Tiger Woods made his much-anticipated return at the Hero World Challenge, putting up scores of 69-68-75-68 to finish tied for ninth in the 18-man field. At one point Friday afternoon, he (briefly) held the outright lead, and his week featured booming drives, flushed irons and club-twirls galore. Successful first step?

Josh Berhow, producer, (@josh_berhow): Absolutely. Weeks ago, most deemed four healthy rounds as good enough, and then he did this (assuming he’s being truthful about being pain-free). Still a long way to go, but can’t be discouraged with this start.

Sean Zak, associate editor, (@sean_zak): Raving success. Pessimists will say this course wasn’t challenging enough, but it was. Use Tiger’s competition as the litmus test and you’ll see he beat eight elite players on a course where he beat just two a year ago. I won’t even get started about his impressive length.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Yes, completely. He’s been through a personal hell, major surgery, the chip yips and a bunch of other things. He played well and carried himself well and talked like a person who knows there’s a mountain in front of him and he’s just starting the climb. It was impressive.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine (@JoshSens): Given that the baseline was avoiding another quick trip to the surgical unit, for sure. He played world’s better than most of us anticipated, without a single noticeable wince. Whether he’ll achieve the level of success that he clearly sets for himself is another matter. If he can’t rid himself of the heebie jeebies with his short game, that’s going to be tough.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, (@Jeff_Ritter): Did anyone expect him to hold the solo lead on Friday afternoon? The road ahead is winding, but this comeback is off to a fast start. He swung it well, showed no signs of injury and had fun. Oh, and he beat half of an elite field. Full speed ahead.

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF Magazine (@joepassov): If we’re to believe the folks broadcasting the event, the fact that Tiger got his ball speed up to 180 seemed to be the biggest news. And yes, he was banging it out there with JT. Funny, last time I checked, the final score, after adding up each hole, was what mattered … but, yes, hugely successful first step. Incredible to see him swinging and walking pain-free. The fact that he contended for awhile and rebounded beautifully on Sunday made it all fantastic. The buzz is back.

John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): I’d say it’s a huge success because I’d bet the house that Tiger is disappointed with his finish. While I’m sure four pain-free days of competition was the minimum he was hoping for, once he got into the mix, felt the juices flowing, saw he could drive it up with Justin Thomas, and took the lead in the middle of Friday, I bet he was of the mind he could win the tournament. I guarantee you he’s not thrilled with people telling him “good playing” or “nice tournament” after finishing T-9. I remember Jack Nicklaus once saying that he knew he wasn’t playing as well as he once did when people would tell him “good playing” after a top-10 finish. Same thing here. I believe this does nothing but whet his appetite. He knows he’s healthy, on the right track in every way, and while I’ve no idea what his schedule is, I wouldn’t be surprised if he wakes up this morning and finds a tournament to add to get back on the course as early as possible.


2. Woods’s four rounds were encouraging, but he still had some rough spots. According to his former coach Hank Haney’s count, Woods required two chips from short range on seven holes over his first three rounds. Is this an obvious sign that he hasn’t yet vanquished his chipping woes?

Berhow: I don’t know if I’d say he has the dreaded “chip y—,” but lots of other players had trouble chipping off Albany’s tight lies and slopes as well, but with Tiger, everyone sees every single shot. It was by far the worst part of his game, but he’s got time to work on it.

Zak: Knowing just how tight the lies can be at Albany, and having watched JT, Tiger AND Rickie Fowler all struggle from certain spots during their practice round Tuesday, I’m ignoring the flubs. All it means to me is that his short game needs some time to be fine-tuned. For every one of those flubs, Woods hit short game shots that were impressive and quickly forgotten.

Bamberger: His bad shots looked bad, but not the kind of bad that’s going to derail a career or a comeback. And by “comeback,” I mean contend now and again and win on some of those occasions. Johnny Miller won at Pebble at age 46 as a full-blown yipper.

Ritter: There were tricky lies galore and other guys also struggled at times. I’m not ready to say that his short-game issues are eliminated, but overall I saw more good than bad. Let’s see how it goes in his next event.

Sens: I’m less optimistic than the rest of you about this. I don’t believe tight lies and grain alone can account for all of his struggles around the greens this week. Rust doesn’t either. He’s had plenty of time to work on his short game. I’m with Haney. The yips don’t just go away. It sure looked to me like Tiger is still wrestling with them.

Passov: Golf Channel’s Trevor Immelman made a good observation about technique (though I’ll leave it to our Top 100 teachers to confirm), as to where Tiger’s shoulders were positioned, with the right shoulder getting stuck, the spine tilted too far back … yet, compared to the last time or two out here — and compared to the rest of the field — I thought he looked just fine, even if it was the least impressive part of his game.

Wood: I’m sorry, what top professionals is Hank Haney currently working with? This is much ado about absolutely nothing.  I’ve been caddying for 22 years now, and the chipping areas around these greens are the most difficult surfaces to chip from I’m ever seen. The ball may seem like it’s sitting there in a perfect lie on TV, but I can promise you it’s not. The surface is uneven, with tiny little indentions for your ball to settle into. It’s incredibly grainy, meaning that when the leading edge of your club makes contact, if the grass is growing into your swing path, it’s like hitting a piece of velcro. Your clubhead gets grabbed and it wants to just stop. When you get one or two of those, even the best in the game get a little concerned and end up catching balls thin to avoid the dreaded Bermuda chunk. Plus, the surface is sandy, which adds another variable into the mix. I don’t mean to get too inside-baseball, but chipping on these surfaces requires a perfect use of the bounce on the club. There is zero room for error. My guy, Matt Kuchar, is absolutely one of the best of the business in all facets of the short game, and every shot he had around the greens this week took much more attention and skill than normal, and he also had a few chips shots that didn’t reach the green. So, just chip-and-run it or putt it, or use a hybrid, you say? You can, but bouncing or rolling a ball through that grass isn’t any more predictable. So, a long winded answer to a simple question: No, I’m not worried about Tiger’s chipping.

3. Based on what you saw from him in Nassau, have your expectations changed for Woods in 2018?

Zak: My expectations have undoubtedly changed, and significantly so. I was very pessimistic. I was not convinced the guy could drive the ball well anywhere, even at wide-open Albany. But then he goes out and hits all but one fairway on Sunday … and keeps up with Justin Thomas at every turn? This is the greatest ball-striker of all-time, people! Woods is past his career prime, but a bunch of 120-yard shots into greens is still birdie central.

Berhow: We were supposed to ease him back into the golf world and then he shoots 31 on the front nine — twice! That changed my expectations. I’m not waiting for Tiger of 2013 to walk through the door, but as long as he stays healthy and plays a dozen or so tournaments I fully expect him to be in the mix on at least a couple of weekends.

Bamberger: Not really, except now it is easier to see him playing a full schedule. He’s no different than any other golfer: he needs to play to have a chance, and the more he plays (within reason) the more chances he will have. I’m trying to say he looks healthy physically.

Ritter: There’s no way he could swing with that kind of velocity — even the recoil was back! — without feeling good. Assuming no setbacks or new injuries pop up, this comeback has a chance to really build.

Sens: I was surprised at his tee game. Not so much the distance (we’d been hearing from credible sources that he had his speed back) but the accuracy. I was less surprised at the chipping, which I suspected would remain issue and appears to still be.

Passov: Big-time. All we’ve been talking about the past three weeks is hoping he’d get around pain-free. These results boosted the bar way, way up. His swing swooshed like the old days, he nailed some long irons, he dunked some critical putts. Expectations have to soar at this point.

Wood: I had some pretty high expectations, but even those have gone up. If his health stays even close to this, I could EASILY see Tiger inside the top 50 by the end of the year.

4. Will Tiger win next year?

Berhow: A Tour event, no, but he will win a Ryder Cup singles match.

Bamberger: Oh, that’s good, Josh. I’d like to steal that but because I cannot I will say no wins in 2018 but some chances.

Zak: No, because the Tiger Schedule is always so difficult. Torrey, the majors, etc., all have difficult fields. I expect multiple top 15s, though.

Ritter: If his body allows him to practice and play as much as he likes, I think he might win the 2018 Hero World Challenge. Before that, maybe a close call or two.

Sens: See above on chipping. Winning is hard enough these days for a player without a single weakness. Tiger can be the picture of health all year but if there are little hobgoblins in his head anytime he pulls a wedge around the green, it’s going to be next to impossible to beat a field of the world’s best. I hope that’s not the case, but those demons are frightfully hard to vanquish.

Passov: Why shouldn’t he win? He remains the best course-management practitioner in the game, and with more reps and no pain — and with new visual evidence that he’s as long as he needs to be — he’ll get it done.

Wood: Yes.  And this morning he knows it.

5. While Tiger drew the crowds and headlines, Rickie Fowler went out on Sunday and shot a course-record 61 to win the Hero by four shots; he also finished second at the Mayakoba earlier in the fall. One NBC analyst said on the air that he expects 2018 to be to Fowler what 2017 was to Justin Thomas. Agree?

Berhow: We have been waiting for Rickie to take that step for quite some time, and he hasn’t. He had that phenomenal 2014 where he was top five in all four majors, and we thought THAT was the launch pad. A Players victory came after it, but still no majors. I expect Fowler to win in 2018, maybe even twice, but I don’t expect him to catapult to a JT-like season.

Zak: It feels cliche to say yes because, as Josh says, we’ve asked this question before. That being said, Fowler just came off one of the best seasons, statistically speaking, that he’s ever had. He’s clearly not backing off that. I think that’s his new norm, and I think he uses it to win three Tour events in 2018.

Ritter: JT won five times in ’17, and I don’t see Rickie getting there in ’18. But I do think he’s going to win a major somewhere, and he’s proven that he’s a threat in any of them. Why not next year?

Bamberger: I don’t think so. I don’t see what’s suddenly so much better about him, fine player though he is.

Sens: I was watching live when that NBC analyst said that and thought, Poor, Rickie. As if he didn’t already have enough weighty expectations hanging over him, now he’s being pegged to match someone else’s epic season. I don’t see that happening, but a lot of young fans in orange would be very happy if it did.

Passov: I’ve got to concur with my colleagues here. Rickie showed today why he’s one of the game’s biggest stars and greatest players, and also why he has exasperated us for so long, with results that don’t match the shotmaking and the potential. He’s tantalized with the same scenario for a few years now, so no, it’s doubtful he’ll have a JT-type 2018. But it would surprise no one if he did. He’s so good for golf, I’m rooting for it.

Wood: That’s a difficult call, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t be. JT’s performance was career-defining. Rickie will keep doing what he’s doing, and if things go his way at a major, everyone will say he’s changed and has finally lived up to the hype.  Nothing will have changed, of course. He just would have gotten the right breaks at the right time to pull out a big one.

6. Hideki Matsuyama was at the center of a controversial kerfuffle at the end of the second round. He hit a chip up the slope on the 18th hole that came up short of the green, and as the ball rolled back toward him, Matsuyama stamped down his divot, which could have been interpreted as him attempting to improve his lie. Officials spoke to Matsuyama, who said he didn’t intend to improve his lie, and no penalty was assessed. You good with that ruling?

Berhow: If Hideki said he didn’t try to do it, I believe him. That’s the golfing code, anyway, right?! Plus, it’s an unofficial event with 18 players. I’m not losing sleep over it.

Zak: Based off the camera footage, no, I don’t believe him. The sequence was Flubbed chip -> “oh, crap” reaction -> foot plant on divot. It may have very well been subconscious, but he’s not stomping down a divot that fast anywhere else. That doesn’t matter, though. What Hideki swears by is what matters, and I just hope it was truthful.

Bamberger: Rory had a similar thing in the third round of his first Masters, from a greenside bunker on 18. If the rules official felt what Zak felt, that he was lying to avoid the penalty, they would have assessed him for it. That almost never happens (though of course it did happen to Woods in Chicago in 2013). I’m fine with the ruling because the rules officials did their jobs.

Ritter: The refs did their jobs, but I still think Hideki caught a break. Like Zak said, it was the way he reacted so quickly to stamp down that turf. I’m sure Hideki wasn’t consciously attempting to break a rule, but I think his action probably broke one all the same. On the bright side, an 18-man glorified exhibition is as good a spot as any for him to learn that lesson.

Sens: It was a squirrelly looking moment, to be sure, but because this all boils down to intent, I’m okay with the ruling. As Josh says, the code calls for us to take him on good faith, to give him the benefit of the doubt. If Matsuyama was being untruthful, that’s between him and his God, and that kind of dishonesty comes with its own form of punishment. As we learned on Seinfeld, “There’s karma, Kramer.”

Passov: Mr. Ritter, I agree completely with your assessment. I’m content to let it be, but if this were a full-field deal, I have to admit, I’d have a harder time with it.

Wood: Imagine if other sports depended on “intent.”

Referee: “Mr. James, did you intend to foul Steph Curry as he shot that 3 pointer?
James:  No, sir, I was trying to block his shot and inadvertently clipped his forearm as I flew past him.”
Referee:  “No foul, ball out on the side.”

There is some looseness going on with the rules these days, and it’s not just this incident. It’s being discussed off the record quite a bit. Players are talking about guys being less concerned with protecting the field and more concerned with every individual’s feelings and reputation. Sometimes breaking a rule, inadvertently or not, deserves a penalty.