Out of the Woods
Issue   |   Wed, 12/07/2011 - 01:30

Seven hundred thirty-seven days. That is how long we waited. But, it was worth it. Because, as of Sunday, some semblance of order finally, finally, returned to our lives in the most exciting way imaginable. We can take a couple of deep breaths, go about our daily business knowing that two plus two is four, and that Tiger Woods is, well, Tiger Woods.

On Sunday at the Chevron World Challenge, the man in his timeless Nike red did what only he can do, turning the full attention of the sports world to golf for an afternoon. As close to his pre-Thanksgiving 2009 form as we have seen, Woods put on what can only be described as a Tiger-esque performance. In the clutch, with the pressure on, all eyes watching and expecting magic, Tiger delivered.

Birdie. Birdie. Ballgame.

In one pressure-packed, six-foot putt, Tiger changed the way we will look at this year. No longer is it the season in which Tiger’s absence paved the way for the younger generation to make their impact on the game. It is the year that Tiger returned. Plain and simple. You could see it on Zach Johnson’s face as Tiger’s putt rolled true. “Yup,” he breathed to his caddie. Yup. The implication was clear. Uh- oh. He’s back.

But wait. Can we really just jump to that conclusion? Is Tiger really back? There are those who shoot down this idea immediately. They scoff at the delight of Tiger’s fans. They point out Woods’ third-round 73, where he gave up a three-shot lead heading into the day to fall one stroke behind Johnson through 54 holes. They draw attention to Tiger’s three missed putts inside three feet in the first round. They ask about the weak competition Tiger faced at this exhibition tournament, while an official event in Sun City, South Africa the same weekend consisted of world No. 1 Luke Donald, Masters Winner Charl Schwartzel, along with a handful of other top players. A victory there would have actually been impressive.

I chuckle at those arguments. Please. Give me a break. I do not question the truth behind them, but you cannot deny the significance of Tiger’s victory at Chevron. I am much more inclined to jump on board the Tiger Express, predicting a return to dominance next year, dreaming about Woods slipping into another green jacket at Augusta. However, I would caution against that reaction as well. Tiger is not back. But he sure as heck is close.

My primary reason for believing in Tiger’s latest comeback is that this recovery has followed a traditional timeline and progression of improvement. After the infamous car accident and resulting withdrawal from competition, Tiger returned to golf in spotty form. He would put up an excellent round, such as his brilliant back-nine 31 at the 2010 U.S. Open, only to follow it up with a round of three-putts and stray drives. The consistency was lacking and what stood out to me was the lack of improvement from tournament to tournament.

In my opinion, however, the turning point in Tiger’s return was his achilles injury at the Players Championship. Talk about a silver lining. That layoff gave Tiger time to reflect and get his head right. As cliché as it sounds, I think it is true. He had lost two tournaments after holding final round leads, something we never saw pre-accident. After all, Tiger was the best of closers. As great a ball-striker as he had been, his incredible mental fortitude was always the key to his success. He needed to get his belief, his confidence and his swagger back. Golf analysts always spoke about Tiger’s work ethic and his desire to put in the hours to get enough of his infamous “reps.” He needed to get back to that routine.

Since that injury layoff, Tiger’s comeback has proceeded in a logical progression. His swing is no longer in shambles, no longer showing up beautifully one day only to disappear the next. He has shown improvement from event to event, an evolution that rationally led people to believe in him last weekend. Tiger was a favorite to win. Admittedly, his competition was not great, but Tiger was actually a favorite. How long has it been since we have honestly been able to say that? In the past year, our sentimentality has clouded our judgment. We have been really high on Tiger a few times, thinking he could break through and win without considering that such a victory would really only be a flash in the pan. This is no such anomaly. Tiger put together four solid rounds.

Even in his over-par third round, Tiger did not play badly. He was overaggressive on the par fives, leading to bogeys, but his swing stayed relatively intact. It was his decision to attempt shots with a high degree of difficulty within his arsenal that led to his high score, not a lack of ability, as was the case in the past.

We expected Tiger to win, and he rose to the occasion. There is something to be said about that success under pressure. If he had crumbled, all our attention would focus on how far he still has to go in his comeback. The fact that he took care of business is a sign that he has improved. He could not have done this last year.

The Tiger of old won when he was supposed to win and when he was not. At least now, he is finally back on track with step one. In my mind though, the significance for the future was more about the fashion in which he won than his actually coming out on top. It was a statement victory, a classic comeback. It showed Tiger still has that magic, that ability of champions to raise their game in the clutch. For all those who thought he had lost that, think again.

That finish should give Tiger fans hope. He needed to come up with a perfect approach on 17. He needed to sink the birdie putt. Ditto on 18. Done, done and done. He has not lost his killer instinct, that part of the game you cannot teach. Jordan had it, Kobe has it, Tiger’s still got it.

What gave me the most hope for Tiger’s future was that his decision-making was back to its 2009 form. Tied at the 18th tee, Johnson took out his driver and blasted his tee shot down the fairway. Tiger, though, chose to play an iron, and while some may cite this as a lack of confidence, I see it as quite the opposite.

Tiger recognized his weakness, that a wayward drive would kill his chances, and made the safe play. It was a choice that he did not make three weeks earlier, which cost him in the final round of the Australian Open. Here though, it was a show of confidence on the grandest scale on Tiger’s part, a statement that “I’m going to play an iron and still beat you.”

As far as I am concerned, Tiger Woods is on the mend. We all witnessed the genuine fist pump, the smile that would not go away during the trophy presentation. You can be sure that Tiger will work for more of that. He is not back yet, but Tiger is getting there.