Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 4, 2016

Woods Returns To High Hopes And Unrealistic Expectations

Tiger Woods returned to competitive golf this week, teeing it up for the first time in more than fifteen months. The coverage of his play at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas left no doubt about his continuing popularity and the expectations of his multitude of fans as well as many members of the media. But with the four rounds of what is essentially an exhibition tournament now complete, it’s fair to ask whether those expectations are reasonable or even fair to Woods.

The tournament, which began in 1999, is a small off-season event benefiting the Tiger Woods Foundation, with Woods serving as the host. The 18-person field is made up of the previous year’s champion, the winners of the four majors, two special invitees selected by the Foundation, and the top eleven available players in the Official World Golf Rankings. Those criteria ensure a strong field – this year’s group included fifteen of the top twenty-five golfers in the world. But the event shouldn’t be mistaken for a pressure filled competition. While it offers a healthy purse the prizes doesn’t count on any tour’s money list, and the Hero World Challenge remains basically a charity outing played on a not especially difficult course.

As such it was perhaps the perfect spot for the long-time world number one to ease himself back into the rigors of competitive play. Due to his long absence Woods has all but disappeared in the rankings. He ended last year at number 416 and arrived at the Albany golf course ranked 898th. He was actually playing in his own tournament as one of the two special invitees. He had been scheduled to return to action at last month’s Safeway Open, the first event of the PGA Tour’s 2016-17 season. But just days before that event in northern California Woods announced he was withdrawing from both it and the Turkish Airlines Open scheduled for early November, saying that his game remained “vulnerable and not where it needs to be.”

There was palpable disappointment among golf fans, and certainly for the organizers of the Safeway Open, when Woods made his surprise announcement. Yet in the many months of his recovery from multiple back surgeries there have been the full range of rumors about the state of his game, from reports that he was hitting the ball better than ever to whispers that he could barely walk and might never play competitively again.

So the eyes of the golf world were firmly on New Providence when Woods finally strode to the first tee on Thursday. In fact even before that there were detailed reports on his play during the pro-am event that preceded the tournament proper. Players participating in the Australian PGA Championship half a world away were tweeting comments as Woods’s first round got underway, and various sports websites were offering what amounted to shot by shot accounts of the action.

For the first couple hours those accounts were uniformly positive and reported with growing excitement. Woods birdied the par-5 3rd hole, and then added three consecutive birdies on the 6th through 8th holes to move to 4-under par. But his momentum stalled with a bogey on the 9th, and then he went in reverse on the back nine, needing 40 shots to get to the house. In the end his opening round of 1-over par 73 left him in front of just one player, Olympic gold medalist Justin Rose, who promptly withdrew with a back injury.

The cheerleading started anew on Friday, when Woods fired a bogey-free 65, the third best round of the day. Fans began to dream of him continuing to charge up the leader board over the weekend. When he made four birdies in the first five holes on Saturday to reach double digits under par and move to within a few shots of front running Hideki Matsuyama, there were more than a few overeager observers convinced that the Tiger of old was again stalking the fairways.

Those fans probably should have figured out that Albany’s front nine was playing relatively easy. Matsuyama would wind up bettering Woods, going 5-under through the first seven holes in the third round. Meanwhile Woods cooled off once again, playing the remainder of his round in 2-over par, including a closing double-bogey. Finally on Sunday when the wind picked up the vulnerability of his game was fully exposed. Woods finished the tournament shooting a 4-over 76 that featured three doubles.

On the final leader board Woods was 15th, ahead of only Russell Knox and Emiliano Grillo and at 4-under for the tournament some fourteen strokes behind Matsuyama. That’s actually not a bad result, for those not carried away by unrealistic expectations. For the week his twenty-four birdies were exactly the same number as were carded by the winner. But not many tournaments are won by players making half a dozen double-bogeys, which is what Woods did in the Bahamas.

In short there were positive signs out of Woods’s first tournament in a very long time. In favorable conditions he struck the ball well and rolled in a number of putts. But his mishits were at times really bad, and he clearly struggled when the conditions grew more severe during Sunday’s final round. Woods seemed to understand the mixed results as well as anyone, saying in a post-tournament interview “I felt like I did some really positive things. I felt good about that. I just need to clean it up.”

In truth though just cleaning it up may be easier said than done. Woods will be 41 later this month, and no golfer of that age has returned from such a long layoff to rule the sport. That’s not to say he won’t win again, for only an idiot would bet against him doing so. Certainly no one should be fooled by that ranking down near number 900. Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson, two golfers in their forties, staged a duel for the ages at last summer’s Open Championship. Jim Furyk carded a 58 in competition at the age of 46. Assuming he remains injury free there is every reason to believe Woods can once again be one of golf’s great stars.

But there is a difference between that role and being the dominant player of his age, as Woods was for many years. Unfortunately it seems there are no shortage of fans and even some members of the media (who truly ought to know better), who expect nothing less from their hero. In a sport with such a deep top rank of superstars, such dominance is likely beyond the reach of any one golfer, and hoping for it won’t make it happen. Those who spend their time doing so are not only going to wind up disappointed; they are also going to miss out on some great golf by an array of other stars. Take for example the 24-year old Matsuyama, number six in the world, who just edged Stenson to win for the fourth time in his last five worldwide events. Now that’s like something Tiger Woods used to do.

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