Tiger Woods Returns to WGC at Doral: Does a Familiar Place Bring an Old Result?

Charlie TodaroAnalyst IIIMarch 10, 2011

Tiger at Doral in 2007.
Tiger at Doral in 2007.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Tiger Woods’ record at the World Golf Championships at Doral the last five times he’s teed it up: Three consecutive victories from ‘05-‘07 and one finish outside the top five, ninth in 2009, absent in 2010. Not quite Firestone, Bay Hill or Augusta, but Doral is a friendly sight for Tiger Woods.

And if this were 2007, the fact that he and Phil Mickelson are playing together the first two rounds would be vibrant on the radio and TV waves of sports talk shows across America.

Well, it’s 2011. Tiger hasn’t won in nearly 15 months, 18 months on the PGA tour; two events played finishing outside the top 30 this season. His personal adventure starting in November, 2009 is well documented. Equally as documented are the simultaneous struggles with his game. No golf course, at least when in front of cameras, has been a welcome place for Tiger since 2009, then recovering from his decimated left leg.

The night before the final round of the Dubai Desert Classic in mid February, I had come to the following conclusion: a player resembling the old Tiger Woods was primed to win Sunday.

He followed a bogey free 66 on Friday, with a three bogey, one double 40 on Saturday’s front. He responded with an eagle on the 10th and a back nine 32 to remain in contention. He reduced his gap from four shots to one with his even par 72 in harsh conditions; a struggling Tiger moved on moving day. The old Tiger, a player whose mindset allowed him to practice and compete fiercely enough to win 14 majors through two swing changes, would have kept moving Sunday.

You don’t have to look back far, the 2008 U.S. Open on one leg, to be reminded of how he was capable of scratching and clawing on the back nine Saturday to remain within a shot of the lead or tied, to strike on Sunday; Dubai was a perfect measuring stick, and the final results were much less than desired.

A final round 75 and tie for 20th, his first finish outside the top 5 in Dubai, showed Tiger doesn’t really have a consistent pulse on his game. He has spoken encouragingly about his improvement ever since joining with Sean Foley, even at the 2010 PGA Championship when nothing was official, but the result is the same; a mostly frustrated Tiger when the tournament is finished. Week after week, the message plods along; it’s going to take time and, at times, may be ugly.

Hank Haney rounded Tiger’s swing plane and his inaccuracy increased. The changes with Foley are focused on creating a steeper swing plane, using trajectory to help shape shots and narrow the window of width in which Tiger misses shots. Tiger is building the swing from the ground up, the main source of power being the lower body and core. Tiger is going back towards attacking the ball instead of sweeping it from the turf. Think 1999-2002.

Tiger is taking his swing in the right direction. And yes, he'll get more hours to work on his short game and green reading. There is no question he needs more competitive visualization and repetition to feel comfortable and see the shot in his mind without having to account for the swing changes. His ability to see the target, make good practice swings for the desired shot and execute like the Tiger of old isn’t going to happen in eight months; this is a swing overhaul in the prime of his career.

But the elephant remains in the room; for Tiger, this goes beyond the golf course. As a nationally competitive amateur golfer in high school and early on in college, I’m 24, I can attest to the saying golf is 110 percent mental. The golf course may be an escape for players’ personal troubles, but the work on golf outside the ropes gets no such escape. Poor or unusual practice leads to poor and unusual play. He admitted to a drastic reduction in practice time as 2010 went on, the focus being on his kids, ex-wife and family.  This especially matters for a player who has been regimented since he was three years old, famous enough to appear on prime time TV.

On prime time morning news, an 11 AM EST special, Tiger addressed the world less than 90 days removed from a full-fledged life changing experience, inpatient and outpatient treatment for Sexual Addiction; a complete 180 from his 1996 “hello world” presser, but carrying a raw tune. A deer in headlights for the world to see, breaking the silence in an internationally broadcast press conference to apologize for his infidelities and explain his experience.

Going to an inpatient rehabilitation facility for any personal issue is an intense, gritty, private experience; the man decided to bring the world into a televised group session, minus the feedback of his peers he can relate to and in the scope of scrutiny. One of the sports world’s most private athletes exposed to an unprecedented degree.

An open wound, concerns and appreciations of his past the focus of his present life. A man, who owned up to his sense of entitlement, displayed a desire to live a life of personal integrity.

His performance drew criticism: bad acting, no emotion, contrived and staged were all descriptions of him and the event. It created a variety of opinion.

His press conference was the deconstruction of Tiger, the introduction of Eldrick; Tiger Woods was not present. I remember thinking we wouldn’t see him on the course in 2010, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say we didn’t.

Moving farther into 2011, Tiger is still yet to appear. But is it reasonable to expect him to so quickly? Jack Nicklaus recently said he is surprised the changes are taking this long. His career thrived as his family grew and he relied on his own knowledge of the swing to make changes.

Tiger is not Jack. The appreciation for Jacks’ last major at age 46 is growing each year Tiger squanders his prime, to the point that many former believers are jumping off the “Tiger will beat Jack’s 18 majors” bandwagon; I admittedly have wavered on that very issue.

Before we count Tiger out, let us look back at Michael Jordan; he retired in his prime, after the death of his father, to pursue a career in baseball. Jordan returned less than two years later wearing the rust of number 45. The 1995 playoffs raised the question, can Jordan be great again, and was he among the best ever? Another three-peat later, question answered.

The great ones do what everyone else can’t. And no one should be disputing the fact that Tiger is among the greatest ever to this point in his career.

There are very few people who can accurately answer questions about Tiger’s game on a regular basis. But when “Cookie” or “Mark’O” speak, long time PGA vets and Isleworth members John Cook and Mark O’Meara, I listen. Cook said on February 17th,“it clicked…vintage Tiger.” Woods' progress had hit a new level, his excitement about his ball flight and the actions of the ball, “way better and way different.” Cook reportedly went as far as to tell Tiger, “Why don’t you just go do it so I can stop having to answer all these questions for you.” Golf is 110 percent mental.

However, Tiger’s past 15 months have been about undoing what has been done. None of that damage happened on the course. The work to do like he used to on the course is in the early stages and only time will allow Tiger to re-shift his focus more inside the ropes.

Oh, the other thing Cook said; “He wants it so bad.”

Tiger said on Wednesday he is excited to play with Phil, it doesn’t happen often in non majors. The only random, non points list generated first round pairing to put them together happened in 1998 at the Nissan Open.

The early stages of his first swing overhaul, the darkness before the dawn of the decade of Tiger.

Do you really want to see Tiger rise back to the top as quickly as he fell? He’s not interested in just winning one more tournament; it’s about another run, five more majors.

Thursday at Doral is reminiscent of that Thursday at Riviera; a historic major win in the rear view, the changes and struggles of the present day in the forefront. Tiger suffered his only playoff loss on the PGA tour to Billy Mayfair that weekend.

And while this weekend may or may not be his breakthrough, Bay Hill and Augusta lie ahead. He needs that first win any elite golfer yearns for when going through substantial swing changes. The Thursday and Friday pairing provides a unique reminder of how long ago it all began.

But more importantly, an opportunity to remind people what came next.