Eldrick’s Back: What to Expect of Tiger Woods?

He’s already had more comebacks than Madonna, but Tiger Woods is this week preparing himself for another one. Formerly known as the Target World Challenge, the Hero World Challenge is an end of season jamboree which raises money for Woods’ charitable foundation. He personally invites 19 fellow professionals, and the small field enjoys a relaxed and enjoyable end to the season.

Previously held at the picturesque Sherwood Country Club in mountains of Southern California, this year the event arrives at a new venue, Isleworth CC in Florida; a curious venue because the club was Tiger Woods’ home course for years while he lived in the area. It’s also owned by tycoon Joe Lewis (who owns Tottenham Hotspur, incidentally). However, with Woods returning from injury, this pre-Christmas knock round has taken on a tad more significance this year.

That doesn’t quite legislate for the tournament being worthy of world ranking points. There are only 20 players in the field, for pity’s sake. (If you don’t know, most regular tour events have a field of around 150).

But everyone will be thoroughly intrigued by what shape Tiger Woods turns up in. Given that he hasn’t played any competitive golf since August, nobody should be expecting to see fireworks. True golf fans will hope to see Woods free of the back pain that has troubled him this year, and playing with a smile on his face rather than dragging himself round the course like a man twice his age. I emphasise ‘true fans’, because there is a section of the golfing population who have never liked Woods even through his success, and relish seeing the man struggle before their eyes. But I think those who love the game ought to love watching it being played well, and Woods has certainly done that and more down the years.

 I emphasise ‘true fans’, because there is a section of the golfing population who have never liked Woods even through his success

Whatever Woods produces this week, it will be premature to draw any conclusions about the state of his game, good or bad. He has recently split with Sean Foley, a coach who he spent four majorless years with. That turn of phrase is slightly harsh admittedly, Woods returned to World No 1 and won eight times on tour under his tutelage. But Woods judges himself on his record in majors so it’s only fair to judge the man by his own standards.

He has yet to appoint a full time coach, but has had some consultations with Chris Como who is an expert in bio-mechanics. Foley had a similarly scientific background, so I was surprised to see Woods carry on in that vein. One would like to think that Woods, who has phenomenal feel and an amazing pair of hands, could stand alone on a driving range and tell which strikes felt right and which ones didn’t. But golfers are generally quite insecure, and like to be told when they are doing something right. It is highly unlikely they will have had time to make too many swing changes, but it might be worth looking out for any subtle alterations.

The first thing most commentators look at when Woods returns from a long layoff is the state of his driving. Rather like Seve Ballesteros, its bewildering how such a talented player can’t sort out one facet of the game. Woods had some fantastic driving weeks under Foley (he generally won when he did), but had some poor ones as well. Crucially, these tended to be in majors.

He appeared to be trying to force drives into fairways and force putts into the hole. There was a time when he simply willed them

More important, by my reckoning, has been the decline in his putting since the 2009 fiasco and particularly inside 10 ft. Woods has remained a very good putter over the last couple of years, among the best dozen or so on Tour, but hasn’t returned to being the metronomic machine he was previously. Once again, if there have been any doubts in his mind regarding his putting, they have reared their head at major championships. Woods has always been intense on the golf course in his demeanour, but there is a feeling that in recent majors intense has become too tense. He appeared to be trying to force drives into fairways and force putts into the hole. There was a time when he simply willed them. All of those factors are psychological and something Woods needs to figure out for himself. Many claim that the mental damage caused by the sex scandal was so great, that he will never recover his famed steel of yesteryear.

I hope he does recover that mind-set, and that he rids himself of injury, if only for this reason; the prospect of Rory Mcilroy and Tiger Woods battling it out on the Sunday of a major is a tantalising prospect. It’s been the talk of the golfing world for the last few years, but it hasn’t quite materialised. Even Tigerphiles like myself would have to admit that there aren’t too many years remaining for this rivalry to be truly competitive (Woods is 39). Moreover, I’m sure Rory Mcilroy wants this to happen. He would have the chance to elevate himself into true greatness if he could defeat an ‘A-Game’ Woods. It would be an eternal shame if we never get to see this contest, and would consign a potentially historic rivalry to the large heap of sporting ‘what ifs’.

Dan Zeqiri

You can follow Dan on Twitter: @ZeqiriDan

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