It's a roll-out that would have made any brand proud.
After months of meticulously dropping video swing glimpses and hints about his health, Tiger Woods is ready to show off his game for real.
Well, sort of.
The Hero World Challenge is Tiger's own event—a limited-field exhibition benefitting his foundation on a tantalizingly forgiving layout at a wonderful holiday destination in the Bahamas. It's the perfect low-pressure, grip-and-grin working vacation for tour players after a long season. You're forgiven if you don't remember that Hideki Matsuyama beat Henrik Stenson by two shots to win last year's edition and the $1 million first prize. All eyes were on Woods then, too, when he was making the first start of his previous comeback.
Last year, Woods shot rounds of 73-65-70-76 to finish 15th in the 17-player field, but his scorecards were crude indicators of his play. He made 26 birdies, but bad driving and sketchy short-game shots led to six double bogeys. This time, many of reports say he's stronger than he's been in five years, and that he's hitting it in the same neighborhood as Dustin Johnson off the tee. Given that Johnson averaged 121 miles per hour in driver clubhead speed last year, that'd certainly be an impressive display if it translates into real tournament golf.
But even if Woods has recovered a lot of the speed he lost from age and multiple injuries, is that the prime indicator that he's on his way to recapturing the form he had in his five-win 2013 season—the last time he looked like his "real" self? Several top teachers say seeing speed is nice, but they'd be looking at different indicators if their own students were in Woods' shoes.
Tony Ruggiero works with Smylie Kaufman, Lucas Glover and Zach Sucher on the PGA Tour, and says that clubhead speed—and birdies and bogeys—would be the least of his concerns. "Does Tiger have to have enough speed to be in the mix with the average player out there? Sure. But I don't think we'd even be seeing him at all if he didn't have that," says Ruggiero, who is based at the Country Club of Mobile and the Sheraton Bay Point Resort in Panama City Beach. "Even when he had all of his speed, his misses tended to be big, wild ones. What do they look like now? That's a lot more important now, because his short game hasn't been what it was."
Woods has been quick to say that the "release pattern" issues that derailed his short game in 2015 have been sorted, but the proof will start to come this week, when he's in front of galleries again. "You can call it whatever you want, but there was something there," Ruggiero says. "It matters, because he's just not going to consistently out-drive Justin Thomas or Dustin Johnson at this point. He's proven he can hit it all over the golf course and still win a major, but he did that when he had Tiger Woods' short game. Is it still there? Can he work on it enough to get it there? Those are the shots I'd want to see my guy hit, along with playing four rounds without anything hurting."
Strikingly bad basic chips were certainly a very obvious issue that needed addressing, but Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher Kevin Weeks says that he would be working with a returning player to make sure the effort to solve that kind of puzzle didn't leave other parts of the short game exposed. "You can't forget about your putting," says Weeks, who is based at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club in Lemont, Ill. "That'd be the thing the doctors probably cleared him to do first, and I'd hope that my guy would feel good enough that he could practice that part of the game a lot. With Tiger, putting has always been such an important part of his game, but he hasn't hit a putt that means anything in five years. We won't really know anything until he gets some of those again."
The consistent message coming from Woods during his recovery has been that he's finally able to live day-to-day without pain—which should bode well for his ability to practice and play a reasonably robust schedule. But other teachers say that knocking the rust off of what has essentially been a three-year layoff isn't as simple as getting more reps, as Woods likes to say. Woods' formidable mental strength has always been a bigger separator than his physical dominance. How do you rebuild confidence when you haven't won a tournament in five years--or a major in almost 10? And is there pressure to force the process along because a chronically injured, soon-to-be 42-year-old's competitive window isn't opening any wider?
Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher Jim McLean says he would be much more interested in his player's mental comfort level in a first event back than at what the scorecard or ShotLink data said. "I would be watching his movements into his shots, and his comfort getting into his routine," McLean says. "Tiger has always been so good at getting into the zone and blocking out distractions. That's not something you can just turn on after having been away so long. Tiger has been a master of the mental part of the game—visualization and relaxation—but this is a time for him to go through it on each practice shot."
No amount of practice reps—or rounds with the President—can replicate what Woods will need to stay in control when the shots really matter, and the courses get more demanding off the tee than Albany will be set up this week. "The first thing I want to see is how easily he can move the ball left to right," says top California teacher Brady Riggs. "Then I want to see if he can hit shots from uneven lies. Those are usually much more difficult when coming off an injury."
Whatever the inevitable mix of good and bad shots ends up producing, how Woods manages his "process" and expectations will be fascinating to see, say Ruggiero and Weeks. "No matter what he shoots, he has to have a real commitment to a game plan, and a real understanding of what he can and can't do," says Ruggiero. "He has to go in with a concrete idea of what he wants to see, and what he considers 'improving,' and if he's able to do that without his back hurting, that's a positive step to take." Weeks echoed Ruggiero's take, and added that he's curious to see how Woods handles the first sign of real adversity.
"He always talks about it being a process. Getting out there this week is a step in the process, but is he going to be willing to fail a few times? To look bad?" Weeks says. "That's what makes this so fascinating to watch. He's been so great, and nobody really knows what he thinks. I can't wait to see how he does. I bet the entire Tour is hoping he goes out and wins."