Tiger Woods has apparently made enough progress in his recovery from back surgeries to put a tentative date on his return to competitive golf, at next month's Safeway Open in Napa, Calif.
Actually getting onto the course for a competitive round is a giant milestone, but what will go into getting Woods as game ready as possible? We asked some top tour teachers what they'd be doing to ease a player back after an extended injury layoff.
"I'd have him go out and play some worst-ball scrambles," say Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher Kevin Weeks, who has worked with dozens of tour players out of his base at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club in Lemont, Ill. "Hit two balls and go play the worst one, all the way around. After three rounds, you're really going to expose the warts in your game, and it will put some pressure on you. That's something he hasn't felt for a year."
Fellow 50 Best Teacher Brian Manzella says he wouldn't be worried about the scores being shot, but more about the relative looseness and freedom in Woods' swing once the wildcard of tournament pressure was added in. "That's what I'd be watching for," says Manzella, who is based at English Turn Country Club in New Orleans. "I would want to see degrees of freedom--not restricting the movement of his weight shift, or the movement of his feet, or the way he throws the club on the downswing. He got hurt trying not to do those things. I'd want to see him play in a way that was going to let him keep playing."
The "bounce-back" ability for Woods to (hopefully) play real rounds four straight days is something that shouldn't be overlooked, says Mark Blackburn, who works with Kevin Chappell and Heath Slocum, among other players. Making it through is as much mental as it is physical for a player who hasn't been in true "tournament shape" for years thanks to the nagging back problems. "I'd find a course he hadn't played before that resembles Silverado and go play 72 holes and try to create a tournament feel," says Blackburn, who is based at Greystone Golf & Country Club in Birmingham, Ala. "He wouldn't be coming back if he didn't think he could win, and I think [Tiger's coach] Chris Como will have him firing on all cylinders. Now it's about knocking off rust."
No matter what he does to get ready, it will be impossible to fully simulate the feeling of playing in front of people for real. That bit of "emotional rust," as Weeks calls it, only comes off with time and experience. "I think it was so smart for him to come back this way, and play a few tournaments in the fall to see where he is. It's like a progress report," Weeks says. "I think we'll see some flashes of the Tiger we know, and some flashes of him being human. And he'll be able to go back and take a few months to work on what needs attention before he comes out again in 2017."