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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

(Un)Realistic Expectations

Today I thought I'd post my impressions of Tiger's first event back after all the surgeries. I'll try not to go off on a rant, but I do want to mention a problem I see when it comes to assessing Tiger's progress.

Golfweek has a great illustration of this in an article they posted just hours before I wrote this. (The photo came from this article as well.) Apparently the oddsmakers in Las Vegas now have Tiger at 20-1 odds to win the 2017 Masters... and Henrik Stenson at only 25-1.

Tiger at the Hero World Challenge

Yes, Vegas says Tiger is a better bet to win the Masters than Stenson. It makes no sense, although it's possible Vegas is just trying to make Tiger unappealing as a longshot bet, in case he should make a lot of improvement by April. You wouldn't want gamblers betting on Tiger at, say, 40-1 and then have him start winning a lot in March.

But that's the point. No one would realistically expect Tiger to be a favorite in April for any reason other than "he's Tiger Woods."

GC admitted to the same bias early in Thursday's broadcast. Patrick Reed had hit just as many bad chips as Tiger, but nobody was "worried" about Patrick's chipping simply because he isn't Tiger. And while the players who have been playing with Tiger made it clear that they thought Tiger's performance was nothing short of amazing, Brandel Chamblee & Company were acting like Tiger was playing horrible golf.

Perhaps I'm being a bit harsh with Brandel because he's been (in my opinion) overly critical of Tiger in the past. But let's just say he seemed less excited about Tiger's performance than the players actually on the course were. For example, given the broadcasts I saw, Tiger's short game was at least as good as the other players at Albany and much better than it was at the 2015 Wyndham. Brandel seemed unwilling to concede even that much.

But I digress. My point is that Tiger is no less human than the rest of us just because he's Tiger Woods. No one believed quarterback Payton Manning would play better than Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers when he came back from neck surgery just because he was Payton Manning. In fact, his own team was unwilling to even give him a chance to prove himself. Payton did in fact lead a different team to a Super Bowl win... but it was three years later.

My own belief is that Tiger played extremely well for a man who, 12 months ago, had trouble walking and who questioned if he would even be able to play again. Let me list the positives I saw.

First off, he finished 72 holes and posted a decent score for someone who hadn't been in competition for 16 months. (I would also say he hadn't had a healthy back for at least 2.5 years.) He clearly had problems with being out of shape both physically and mentally, but he left the course each day walking normally, not fighting back pain. Those are major accomplishments and, despite the critics' continued quoting of Tiger's "I always play to win" comments, they were clearly in line with Tiger's own expectations as well.

Note to critics: "Playing to win" simply means you play your best each day, to try and give yourself your best chance to win. Tiger made it clear that he gave it his best shot each round, but understood from the start that his current best was unlikely to win the event. Remember in the pre-tournament presser when he said he was playing to win but that Bubba's 2015 score "would be a tall order"?

But again, I digress. Back to the positives...

Tiger's short game and putting were much better this week than they were when we last saw him. They still need some work, sure, but they looked pretty good after a 16-month layoff. So did his iron game, despite playing a new ball in windy conditions. There's a reason his best round came on the one day the winds laid down!

As for the driver, I don't think it was fair to say he had a two-way miss. During any given round, his miss was pretty consistent. He missed left on Thursday, didn't really miss on Friday, missed right on Saturday and mostly left on Sunday when he was clearly running out of gas. Given how much he's talked about getting used to his new driver and needing to make adjustments, that (plus his lack of conditioning) was probably the main reason for his misses. I like most of what I saw.

Let me voice one more disagreement with Brandel. He said that Tiger's right (trailing) hip was too high and that it was affecting his timing. I think he has that backwards -- Tiger's timing is off and that made it look as if his trailing hip was too high.

Without getting into a lot of mechanics here, Tiger seems to be going more upright with his new swing -- a sensible move to minimize back strain. An upright swing requires a slightly slower change of direction than the flatter swing Tiger has used since he worked with Haney. Changing direction a bit too soon limits the movement of his trailing hip as he starts down, and that's why it looks to be a bit too high. Tiger's timing was better Friday than the other days, and his hip moved just fine. To quote Tiger, he "just needs more reps."

And that's ultimately what it comes down to -- Tiger simply needs more playing time before we can tell what his final swing will look like. Jordan Spieth said the critics should give Tiger a year before they start criticizing, but I think it could be as much as two years before Tiger's body has a chance to fully recover and his nervous system adjusts to the new "feel" of his swing. After this much time, Tiger isn't returning to his "old" body. His body will now react to things differently, and he seems content to take his time and let nature take its course.

That's why I still believe he's going to beat Jack's record. As long as he gives his body time to heal completely, that amazing golf mind of his will figure out a way to get that new ball in the hole.

I think that's a totally realistic expectation.

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