So what is to be made of Tiger Woods’ return to the tour?
Well, compared to last year’s finish at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, he is on the comeback trail. A year ago, Woods finished 30 shots back of winner Hunter Mahan. On Sunday, he finished 18 strokes back of champion Adam Scott at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio.
In fairness, Woods was playing his first full 18 holes and tournament since injuring his left Achilles in the third round of the Masters. He did play nine holes at The Players Championship, but withdrew. He also skipped the U.S. Open and Open Championship, but is entered in this week’s PGA Championship.
In Woods’ words, he was “absolutely encouraged” by his 1-over 281 score. As for the bigger issue, that being his leg, Woods may be even more encouraged.
“It feels great,” he said. “It’s a different kind of feeling.”
Hard to imagine is what a healthy Woods is capable of accomplishing. He apparently sans injury issues during his 2000 Summer Slam, winning the U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship. In December 2002, he had surgery to remove fluid inside and around the anterior cruciate ligament, and his medical record file began to grow.
At Firestone, Woods displayed flashes of rust and resurgence. He opened with a 2-under par 68, but also posted a 2-over 72.
“I had it in spurts this week,” he said. “I hit it really well, and then I’d lose it and get it back. Today was a good example of that. I hit it well starting out, then completely lost it there, and tried to piece it back together at the end. I found my putting stroke at the end, too, which was nice.
“I’m still struggling with my alignment and trusting the fact that the ball doesn’t shape as much as it used to. I don’t cut the ball as much, I don’t draw the ball as much, the pattern is much tighter. It’s weird when I look up the fairway or look at the flags; I’m used to seeing the ball move a lot more in my lines, so I’m still fiddling with that.”
If anyone can figure out swing adjustments, then it is Woods, who is on his third instructor of the past decade. Statistically this week, Woods hit just 39.3 percent of his fairways (76th in the field), averaged 29.3 putts per found (T43) and hit 65.3 percent of greens in regulation (T26).
Those are not numbers that will contend on a weekly basis.
“You have to understand, I’m fresh,” he said. “I haven’t played. So it’s nice for me to get out there in this competitive atmosphere no matter how I was playing just to figure out how to score because I haven’t been forced to score.”
Woods historically has said he expects to win each time he tees the ball up. When that will occur again is a guess, and Woods even now says he just has to keep playing.
U.S. Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples apparently believes the Woods of old cannot be too far off as he said late last week that Woods is all but a lock as a captain’s pick for the team that will compete in mid-November.
“If he wants to come talk to me and say maybe I am not as healthy as I thought I was, so be it, but as far as our concern if he is not the top 10 — he will be on our team, no doubt,” Couples said on Friday. “He is the best player in the world for a long time. He has slipped a little in rankings maybe, the way he is shooting scores, but he is still Tiger, and if I am captain, I will pretty much take him anytime we go.”
Woods may again go winless in a major season for the third straight year next week, but for the long haul, the former world No. 1 likes the long-term prognosis.
That may again be a scary thought for his rivals.
Stuart Hall is editor of the Golf Press Association.