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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Some Tigerish Thoughts

Since Tiger makes his reappearance today at the WGC-Bridgestone and everybody with an opinion has stated their piece, I thought I'd jump in with a few opinions of my own. There have been several contentious issues debated over the last few days, and I doubt that we're going to get any sure answers to most of them. But after watching and listening to the few facts we've been privy to over the last few months, I've developed my own view. Again, let me remind you that these are just my opinions... but I think I've reached some fairly logical conclusions.

1) Tiger fired Steve Williams because their friendship broke up. Here's what we know for sure: Steve Williams says he told Tiger shortly after this whole mess started that Tiger would have to earn his respect back. We know Steve was considered guilty by association, then accused of knowing what was going on and helping with the cover-up. We're pretty sure that Tiger originally gave Steve permission to caddie for Adam Scott, then changed his mind but Steve refused to go back on his word to Adam. We know Tiger told Steve in person that he was fired after the AT&T and that, whether you believe it was a "good talk" or not, Tiger said they both said some tough things "that needed to be said." Finally, we know that on Wednesday Steve came onto the range while Tiger was practicing and, when he saw where Tiger was, walked to the other end of the range and set up for Adam.

The logical conclusion here is that the friendship fell apart, that Tiger didn't earn back Steve's respect, and that Tiger either decided that the friendship couldn't be fixed or that it would take more work than he was willing to put into the effort. That would explain Steve's remark that he wasted the last two years, since he feels that he spent that time trying to salvage the relationship but that Tiger didn't put in the same effort. And Tiger probably feels that Steve had already pronounced judgment on him and there was nothing he could do to get the old dynamic back.

I'm not placing blame here, or saying that one was right and the other wrong. I'm just saying that's why the most successful partnership in golf history ended so suddenly and so messily. It wasn't really so sudden at all.

2) The Tiger/Clarke pairing is a good idea. Jason Sobel called it "pandering," which just sounds like sour grapes to me. There are, after all, some people who will never forgive Tiger for what he did to Elin (and in their eyes, to us fans as well) and will view any kindness shown to Tiger as unwarranted favoritism. They're entitled to their opinions.

But here's what I see: Whether we like it or not, John Hawkins hit it on the head when he said "Tiger doesn't move the needle, he is the needle." Whether we like it or not, Tiger is the main reason that golf is the money sport it is today. And whether we like it or not, the casual golf fan watches to see what Tiger does. There are even some who believe Tiger tried to play at the TPC because the Tour essentially called in a favor. I don't know whether that's true or not, but you can be certain the Tour didn't try to talk him out of playing until they were sure he was healed. Like it or not, Tiger is still the PGA Tour's meal ticket.

There's one other thing to consider. While Sobel clearly isn't in this group, there appears to be a growing number of fans who feel that Tiger has "done his penance." After the "confession" there was -- perhaps justifiably -- a widespread belief that Tiger needed to be punished for his indiscretions. Nobody likes to see wrongdoers get off easy; it goes against our sense of justice and fair play. But after two years in which Tiger has suffered in almost every conceivable way -- personally, publicly, physically, financially, and professionally (by which I mean he largely lost his ability to make a living) -- Tiger shows signs of becoming a sympathetic figure who has suffered enough. I heard a public image specialist talk about this very thing several months ago, about how fallen public figures make comebacks, and he said the process usually takes between 2 and 3 years.

So, if you were the Tour, why wouldn't you try to make it a bit easier for him to get back in the game? He's already got a pretty steep hill to climb if he wants to come back, but his success stands to benefit you and all the other Tour players. All you're doing is giving him a comfortable pairing for 2 measly days that might help him hit the ground running. And if it works, you could electrify the sports world for the next couple of months -- a situation that would help the Tour immensely, especially with TV contracts being renegotiated in 2012.

Finally, they paired the prodigal son with one of the most-loved "everymans" in the game. This isn't going to hurt Darren Clarke either, folks. It's been largely forgotten that Darren is one of the few players who could beat Tiger during the run of 2000-2001, and this pairing guarantees the newest Open Champion some TV time. I'd call that a pretty smart piece of packaging.

3) If he can putt, Tiger will be in contention Sunday. I wrote in my Saturday Masters post that K.J. played great and had some company:
And who's that wild animal tearing through the ranks to join him? None other than Tiger Woods, who joined him there with a great second round. Tiger actually seemed to be swinging his clubs rather than just hitting positions; he even had some touch in his putting and short game.
That good play continued most of the way through Sunday, and in my Masters Limerick Summary post I noted:
In 9 holes he had moved from 7 back to 1 back before his putting deserted him.
Still, he carries away a lot of positives. I do think Friday was a turning point for Tiger. As I said in Saturday's post, it's the first time I've seen him actually "swinging the club" rather just trying to "hit positions." Although he didn't score particularly well Saturday, he's clearly had a (pardon the pun) major breakthrough in his rebuild process.
If he indeed made a breakthrough after several months of working with Foley, he didn't just forget it while he was injured. One of the overlooked comments Foley made a few days ago was that he and Tiger had been working on some mental rehearsal techniques over the phone while Tiger was unable to play. You have to understand what you're trying to do in order to profit from such a routine but, having used such a process before, I can assure you that when Tiger started hitting full shots a couple of weeks ago, he wasn't starting from scratch. Even skeptics like John Hawkins say that the work he's seen Tiger do on the practice range this week looks pretty good.

We also know Tiger's past excuse for his poor putting has been that the full-swing practice had taken away from his short-game practice time. For the past few weeks he's only been able to chip and putt, so that part of his game should be back in shape.

All that leaves is his actual physical condition... and by all accounts he's as strong as he says he is. As Hawkins said during one GC broadcast Wednesday, "He was out on the range practicing for an hour. When was the last time he was able to practice for an hour?"

That said, I don't expect Tiger to win. I actually like Gary Woodland this week, but I think Tiger will make things interesting.

Anyway, that's my take on the current state of the soap opera we know as Tiger Woods. If nothing else, this is going to be an interesting couple of weeks. Will Tiger work his way into the FedExCup? Stay tuned...

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