Have you seen the new Nike "The Good Life" TV spot yet? If you haven’t, check it out. It depicts Stewart Cink, Trevor Immelman, Justin Leonard and Anthony Kim living la vida loca in Tiger Woods’ absence from the PGA tour. Woods walks in on the group chatting it up in a men’s clubhouse and the proverbial air in their balloons goes screaming quicker than hurry up. It’s quite apropos really.
If you missed it, Woods returned to professional golf this week and for one round, he looked just fine. But a gritty performance by Tim Clark knocked the world’s No. 1 out in the second round and effectively killed the buzz surrounding the tournament. Not to worry.Woods had surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in June 2008, days after winning his third U.S. Open. After that stirring match, which he won in a playoff against Rocco Mediate, Woods’ revealed he also had been playing on a double stress fracture in that same leg. You don’t think golfers are tough?
The rest of the competition knows better.
Woods performance in his first foray into pro golf in nearly 10 months can be looked at as the first part of the process. After all, he’s coming back from an injury that ends the careers of just about every other athlete not named Jerry Rice.
Like the NFL’s leading receiver of all time was, Woods is a phenomenal athlete and is in great shape. Rice, who sustained the same injury in the opening game of 1997, came back after 14 weeks of recovery to play in the 49ers season finale. Woods took more time to recover, but is essentially the same place in his career as was Rice. An injury as severe as a torn ACL takes time to heal from. But more importantly, a golfer needs time to knock of the rust.
Woods is taking his time. His swing coach Hank Haney spoke after Woods’ exit and said
"The amount of satisfaction I have is related to how Tiger feels he did, and he felt like he did well," Haney said. "He told me he thought he hit the ball real well, and I thought he did, too. I thought he hit a lot of great shots."
Woods is the best golfer in the world for many reasons. He is resilient - see the 2008 U.S. Open. He’s strong - led the PGA in greens in regulation in 2008. He has won 14 majors and owns a 29 percent career winning percentage. As good as he is though; he needs to shake down the swing a little bit before he’s back to his dominating self.
Perhaps a good sign is Woods shot 5 under over his two rounds at the Accenture. Had it been stroke play, Woods wouldn’t have been in the lead, but he certainly would have been in the mix and if you’ve followed him over the years, you know he needs to only be "around" on Saturdays to be in the hunt for the win on Sundays.
Woods also struggled in his first tournament back from a nine-week hiatus after his father died of prostate cancer in 2006. He failed to make the cut at the U.S. Open at Wingfoot thus ending a 39 consecutive cuts made streak at the majors, but showed resolve three weeks later at the Western Open where he tied for second. At the PGA Championship that same year, Woods devastated the field en route to firing 18 under while missing just four fairways the entire week.
The competition knows what to expect. Padraig Harrington perhaps has the most to lose. The Irish golfer took advantage of Woods’ absence to win the remaining two majors of 2008 to become the only golfer to win two majors in a year beside Woods since Mark O’Mera won the Masters and the U.S. Open in 1998.
Like any fine-tuned machine, Woods relies on precision. His swing needs to be retuned before the Masters in April and he needs to get his legs under him. Believe it or not, he may even need to regain a bit of confidence, if not in his abilities, but his body before he’s ready to dominate once again. That’s why Woods will take it easy and work himself back into playing shape before then. He may be back on the course as soon as next week at Doral for the World Golf Championship beginning March 12.
"His knee is stable, but it is different," Haney said in an ESPN interview. "It's not flopping all over the place [as it did before surgery]. Has he changed his swing? Your swing is going to be different when your knee is not flopping all over the place. It's different because his leg feels different.
"I don't think there is any doubt there was going to be a getting-used-to-it-feeling period of time. What's encouraging is he was feeling good, his warm-ups were really good, too, which is a big part of this. He felt really good about how he did on the course, and overall it was pretty good."
That’s great news for the PGA and Tiger Woods fans but bad don’t be surprised if the competition isn't throwing him welcome back parties everywhere he goes.