WINDERMERE, Fla. — Golf is a bottom-line business, but the hard numbers tell a different story than the one Tiger Woods was telling at Isleworth on Sunday after playing four rounds at the Hero World Challenge.
Clearly he was not pleased with finishing so far behind winner Jordan Spieth, by tying for last place in his annual charity tournament, by having so many woes around the greens.
Shooting even par for four days is not so bad unless it is compared to Spieth, who shot 26 under par to easily capture his third professional title.
But Woods had his own victory of sorts.
He would never talk in such terms, never view it with any kind of exuberance. But after a year lost to injury and ineffectiveness, Woods could look ahead to 2015 with optimism, view the big picture without getting caught up in where he finished this week.
“First things first: playing tournament golf without being in pain, without having to call my physio every day or having to put out fires with my body, swing-wise,” Woods said “It was nice to be able to hit the ball the way I did this week.”
His final-round 72 at Isleworth included an ugly triple-bogey 8 at the 13th hole where Woods again struggled with a couple of chunked chip shots to bring his total for the week to nine.
Throw in a ball left in a bunker and another bladed chip shot, and there’s 11 wasted shots and an area of concern going forward.
It was such a shocking development — despite Woods’ lack of play and practice — that a Twitter account (@DidTigerChunk) popped up over the weekend to make light of the development.
Woods put it on being in the middle of swing thoughts under new instructor Chris Como, an issue that he will also have to confront in his long game — even though it seemed to only crop up during a first-round 77.
“If I put my backswing in the same position that I used to have it in and then make this new release, I’m going to hit it fat every time,” he said. “I’ve got to get things in a different order. From about 40 yards out it’s pretty solid. I hit those shots really well. Anything inside of that, I have to get used to.
“It’s a different release pattern, and so my chipping is off, putting is just a touch off,” he said. “I started to figure something out today, which was nice. I’ve got to get used to a different release pattern, different release point. That said, my short game is off because of it, but my long game is better. All it is is practice. I just need to work.”
Can Woods overcome those chipping problems with work or is there something more in play?
Cook, an Isleworth member, hit balls with Woods on Monday and Tuesday and was pleased with what he saw.
“Watching him on the range is absolutely great,” said Cook, who noted Woods’ ability to shape shots with a higher trajector. “That’s step one and I love it. Now step two is doing it out there (on the course) every single time, trusting that and not reverting back. I like it. But he’s got to get into a golf rhythm. He hadn’t even walked 18 holes until Wednesday.
“There’s walking and waiting and wondering what your body is going to do and how it’s going to react. That’s a whole different animal than hitting balls and jumping in your cart and zipping down the fairway. I just like what I see. He’s lean, he’s flexible. He’s got power.”
Although Woods is referring to Como as a “consultant,” the man behind the new Woods was at Isleworth every day, and waiting to speak to his client after Woods finished up his post-round duties.
“I think it looks better,” said another friend, Steve Stricker, who played with Woods during the final round Sunday. “He’s going through it a little more freely. Obviously his short game, putting and chipping, it’s not up to snuff, not what he’s expecting out of himself. But he looks a lot better going through the ball.”
Woods could also stand to hole a few more putts. He did well to fight back to even par on Sunday after making a triple bogey at the 13th hole – he played the hole in 3 over for the week despite making an eagle there on Friday – but failed to make putts of any length.
The lack of consistency on the greens is not a new problem. It has plagued Woods for five years. In his nine worldwide victories from 2011-13, Woods almost always had strong putting weeks. There are tournaments where the putter gets hot (see Doral, 2013). That might simply be the reality for Woods as he approaches his 39th birthday on Dec. 30. It is unlikely to expect the putting prowess he exhibited for so long.
Now it appears he has to rely even more on solid ball striking. He can’t have rounds where he misses numerous fairways and greens because to expect him to scramble his way to success is unrealistic.
And that is why the improvement in his long game is promising. Hitting 14 greens a round, giving himself numerous birdie opportunities, taking care of the par-5s…that would be the formula for getting back to winning. Sounds simple, but it has been something that eluded Woods for most of a trying 2014.
So where does 2015 begin?
As is his custom, Woods did not say. “It’s a pretty full schedule, I’ll leave it at that,” he said.
The Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines would seem a logical tournament to put on the schedule, given Woods’ overall success at the venue (eight victories). But what else? Torrey Pines isn’t until Feb. 5-8, and the tournaments preceding it and following it have long been a tough sell.
Woods has never played the Humana Challenge (Jan. 22-25) and hasn’t been to the Waste Management Phoenix Open (Jan 29-Feb. 1) in more than a decade. Following Torrey Pines is the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-am – which he played in 2012 after a 10-year absence – followed by the Northern Trust Open at Riviera, another tournament he stopped playing years ago.
The problem with Riviera is it precedes the Honda Classic and it doesn’t seem likely he would play three straight – the WGC-Cadillac Championship follows Honda, his hometown event. Two weeks later comes the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
So does Woods play just four times between now and the Masters? Does he add a fifth? A sixth?
For now, the exact schedule will have to wait. But the fact it is being discussed with Woods embracing the idea is more meaningful than a score on a card at this point.
“I like what I’m doing right now,” said Woods, who plans to keep working on his game for the next week or so before taking a holiday break. “I just want to reinforce it before I take my break. Obviously there are some things that I can can in my short game that I can definitely work on.
“Overall, it’s so nice to be able to go out there and hit drives that hard again, take bunkers out of play, cut corners. Hadn’t felt healthy enough to be able to do that in a very long time.”