Golf history already has been made this week at the Masters. After all, has there ever been such a whirlwind of golfing excitement created by two rounds of abbreviated practice?
And with the greatest golfer of the last 20 years pronouncing himself fit and cured of the chipping yips at a post-practice press conference, his legion of fans naturally wants to believe the good times are ready to roll again.
James Corrigan, golf writer for The Telegraph, wrote that “Woods could easily have shot a 30 on the front nine” in Monday’s practice.
Also leading the parade of optimists is Mark O’Meara, the 1998 Masters champion and Tiger's good friend, who practiced alongside Woods.
"He'll be nervous on Thursday. We all are," O'Meara said to ESPN's Bob Harig of Woods’ sudden return to competitive golf after two months away. "And under the gun it's always a little bit different. But never underestimate Tiger Woods."
Yes, Woods stunned us with a fourth-place tie in the 2010 Masters after a five-month layoff, but this time around that seems like way too much faith, way too soon.
Woods is 10 years removed from his fourth and last Masters title. He’s also seven years distanced from his last victory at a major.
But it was only two months ago that he withdrew from the Farmers Insurance Open after 11 holes in the first round. The week before he shot his all-time worst score as a pro, an 82 that trashed his effort to make the cut at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
He’s wallowing at No. 111 in the world rankings, and in his last six starts he has missed three cuts, he has withdrawn twice and his only four-round finish placed him 69th.
Tiger’s latest return in a seemingly endless series of comebacks from injury will doubtlessly boost his sport’s lagging television ratings. And it could be a subtle blessing for Rory McIlroy, diverting the media attention away from the Northern Irishman’s quest to complete the career grand slam.
But is it good for Tiger?
If he’s playing on Saturday after making the cut, yes, absolutely.
But if this is just another false start, it’s time to wonder whether he needs a whole lot more practice—and a whole lot less pride. The marketing execs at Nike undoubtedly love seeing Tiger keep his brand and their swoosh out there. But no one benefits from seeing Tiger look as human as he has lately.
And for Tiger to try to play his way back into shape at the Masters is a little like a 16-year-old trying to pass a driver’s license test in the fast lane at a NASCAR race. Augusta’s greens swerve and undulate like a snake on the prowl, and the course is littered with chip shots that at best are aggravating and at worst get ulcers brewing.
Former PGA champion and ESPN analyst Paul Azinger said there’s a big potential downside for anyone who isn’t prepared for everything Augusta National throws at players.
“You could be embarrassed there," Azinger told USA Today’s Steve DiMeglio, while adding this about the task Woods is taking on:
Tiger's got to go out and probably exorcise some demons. The first little pitch shot he's got to hit, not chip shot, the first little pitch shot he's got to hit will be micro-analyzed, and he knows that. There's a big microscope on that guy. … Nobody knows what to expect, but I'm telling you, hopefully he's focused on that, and he does have to get his reps in, and this is a tough first place to start.
CBS analyst and six-time major winner Nick Faldo put it more succinctly, telling DiMeglio that, "Augusta National is the most nerve-wracking golf course we play."
Woods' former swing coach, Hank Haney, warned in a Golf Digest article regarding Tiger's chipping yips that returning too fast puts him at risk of making the problem worse. Wrote Haney:
There's no reason for Tiger to play more events until his back is healthy and he has a manageable plan to play around this short-game issue. Confidence is such a big part of the game. If he goes to Augusta and chips the way he has, he's only going to produce more mental scar tissue. It's just not worth the risk.
But for now, it’s all about the upside of Tiger’s return.
Martin Kaymer, last year’s U.S. Open champ, told BBC.com that, "We all know when he's around, somehow it does make us play better." And a recent ESPN poll of pro golfers finds that nearly two-thirds of them believe Woods will win the elusive 15th major he has been hunting since 2008.
But are those honest beliefs or just wishful thinking that’s more enjoyable than contemplating what golf will be like if Tiger can’t make it all the way back?
For two decades Tiger has provided a rising financial tide that floats all of golf’s boats and bank accounts. But how much longer will that last if all we see from Tiger is more pained wincing and muffed shots? He’s still the sport’s golden goose, but it has been a while since he produced an omelet.
As comebacks go, getting excited about Woods’ two mini-rounds of practice is like baseball being agog because A-Rod had a productive session in the batting cage or NBA fans thinking Derrick Rose is finally ready to go the distance because he looked good at a morning shootaround.
Before we all overload the Tiger bandwagon again, let's forget about the Monday and Tuesday practices and see what he can do on a Sunday. If he can get that far.
Tom Weir covered several majors as a columnist for USA Today.