Tiger Woods Still Has a Long Way to Go to Be Competitive Again

Michael FitzpatrickFeatured ColumnistDecember 8, 2016

Tiger Woods waits to hit on the 14th green during the final round at the Hero World Challenge golf tournament, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016, in Nassau, Bahamas. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Tiger Woods remained upright for four consecutive competitive rounds last week.

Based on his recent injury history and the fact that he had not played a competitive round in 466 days, that achievement alone can be viewed as a positive development in his latest comeback.

"Honestly, my goal was to get him through five rounds on his feet. That was big," Woods caddie Joe LaCava said on Sunday evening (as reported by golf.com).

Woods appeared to begin the week somewhat apprehensively with regards to his swing speed, but as the tournament progressed, so did the velocity with which he attacked the ball, particularly off of the tee. 

While Woods' physical health has most certainly improved since we last saw him limping around the Wyndham Championship in August of 2015, the current health of his golf game should be cause for concern.

The same two issues that have plagued Woods in recent years were once again present last week: an erratic driver and shaky short-game.

For most of the opening round, Woods' miss was to the left before he eventually regressed to a two-way miss on the weekend as he began to increase his swing speed.

On Thursday afternoon, Woods missed the fairway left on 11, 13, 14 and then found the water left on 18 en-route to a back-nine score of 40.

Friday’s 65 was by far Woods' best round of the week. Not coincidental, Woods relied heavily on his three-wood off of the tee for much of the day, which then allowed him to capitalize on the strength of his game—his iron play from the fairway.

The 14-time major champion got off to a strong start on Saturday and pulled to within just three strokes of Hideki Matsuyama’s lead before taking part in what he has, through the years, referred to as "military golf" (left, right, left, right, etc.).

Woods pulled his tee shots left on nine and 11, and then he missed right of the fairway on 14, 15, 16 and 18 on his way to a back-nine score of 38.

Woods' performance off of the tee was better on Sunday, particularly later in his round when the pressure had ceased to exist, but he hit just 53 percent of fairways for the week.

Luckily for Woods, he was competing at a course with wide fairways lined with sandy waste areas.

So when he was offline with his driver, more often than not he found himself dealing with nothing more than fairway bunker shots out of relatively flat lies.

Had Woods been playing at a course such as Torrey Pines South, Muirfield Village or Firestone Country Club, all of which contain fairways lined with thick rough, his scores would have been significantly higher for the week.

And had this been a U.S. Open venue, well, let's just say that things could have gotten quite ugly for Woods out there.  

It is by no means far-fetched to surmise that Woods would have approached scores in the 80s for at least two of his four rounds had he been forced to contend with U.S. Open style rough outside of the fairways last week.

Woods' inability to find the fairway may also serve as an ominous sign for the future health.

The 14-time major champion is coming off of three back surgeries, and needless to say, spending at least half of each round hacking the ball out of thick rough will not exactly help his chances of making it through the year with his surgically repaired back still intact.

Woods' inaccuracy off the tee was somewhat expected, as this is an issue that has plagued him for much of his career.

But recently, more interest has fallen upon his short-game after he shocked the golf world with a case of the chipping yips which began at the 2014 Hero World Challenge.

And continued into 2015.

It was evident last week that Woods had put a lot of time into his short-game while recovering from back surgery, and at first glance his hard work appeared paid off for much of the Hero World Challenge.

However, it is what Woods seems to have worked hard to perfect that is somewhat concerning.

In an effort to suppress his chipping yips, Woods appears to have created a one-dimensional short-game built on low bump-and-run style chips with longer irons.

His other go-to option from off of the greens last week was to not chip at all. On numerous occasions, Woods opted to leave his irons in the bag and pull out a putter instead, sometimes from more than 10 yards off of the green like he did on the ninth hole on Sunday.

Albany has very little rough around the greens, and the mostly elevated putting surfaces allowed Woods to get away with this Band-Aid short-game.

But virtually every time Woods was forced take out a true wedge and play a chip shot through the air, he struggled.

On Thursday, Woods chunked his pitch shot on the ninth hole, sent his ball clear over the green at the 14th and then watched in disgust as his ball rolled 30 feet past the hole on 16.

After driving his ball into the water on 18, he wound up just right of the green with his approach shot. Woods pitch to the green had to be played through the air from a tight lie. Luckily for Woods, his ball stuck the flag stick and came to rest 10 feet from the hole. Had Woods not had that good fortune of hitting the pin, his ball was headed towards the back of the green.

Woods faced few difficult chip shots on Friday. He put the ball in the fairway off of the tee with his three-wood for much of the day, which then allowed him to put on a truly impressive exhibition of precision iron play.

His only blemish around the greens during Rd. 2 was on 15 where he was forced to chip up a hill with a wedge that sent his ball 12 feet past the hole. He wound up sinking the putt for par, so ultimately, no harm was done.

But as Woods began to struggle off of the tee again on the weekend, his short-game issue inevitably returned, particularly on Sunday.

During his final round, Woods sent a tight bunker shot clear to the other side of a double green at the sixth. He then took out a wedge and chunked his chip shot coming back.

Woods missed the green into the right rough at the par-four 10th and found himself in a position that called for a chip shot to be played through the air with a wedge. Woods opted to send it low with a long iron again, rolled his ball 10 feet past the hole and wound up making bogey.

On the 11th, Woods was forced to open his club face with a wedge out of the rough and helplessly watched his ball fly clear over the other side of the green. He then played another poor pitch shot coming back and missed a 10-footer for bogey.

On the par-three 12th, Woods drove it just left of the green and got lucky with a good lie in the rough. Although a bump-and-run style chip was out of the question from this position, Woods was faced with a straightforward chip shot; the type of shot that most professionals look to either make or at least leave themselves with a tap-in for par. Woods took out a wedge, hit his chip shot a bit fat and left himself with a five-footer for par, which he missed.

As Woods typically does in the press room, he put a positive spin on his performance on Sunday evening despite finishing 14 strokes behind tournament winner, Matsuyama. Per Will Gray of Golf Channel:

Big picture? It feels good. It feels good to be back out here playing again, competing and trying to beat these, the best players in the world. I missed it, I love it. I’ve had some very, very difficult times and have some great friends that have helped me over the times to get me to this point, and I’m just so thankful to be back here playing again.

Woods did go on to acknowledge that he has some issues to sort out.

"Unfortunately, I made a lot of mistakes this week. A lot of birdies, but also made a lot of mistakes."

In order for Woods to be even remotely successful again, something will need to drastically change in his game, and that something will more than likely need to be his ability to find the fairway off of the tee.

While Woods may never be able to fully rid himself from the chipping yips, it is possible for him to play around this weakness.

The problem for Woods is that his ability to mask his chipping yips will be almost solely dependent by his ability to find the fairway off of the tee, which is clearly something he is still struggling with.

Aside from 1999-2001, Woods' struggles off of the tee have existed for much of his career. He was able to overcome this weakness with an amazing short-game and putter.

But that same short-game and putter no longer exist, so he will need to find another way to score.

Woods is one of the best iron players of all-time, and based on his performance last week, he has not lost anything in that aspect of his game.

This will be the key to any success Woods may enjoy over the next several years.

His ability to find the fairway off of the tee will not only reduce his risk of further injury, it was also allow him to lean on the strength of his game (his iron play), which in turn will allow him to mask a real weakness of his game (his short-game).

Woods can win with an erratic driver and a solid short-game and putter (as he did for much of his career), and he can win with a shaky short-game but an accurate driver (as we saw during round two of the Hero World Challenge), but there is no possible way he can win while struggling with both his driver and short-game.

Yes, Woods' return to professional golf last week showed us all that he is once again healthy, which is of course great to see. But it was also a clear demonstration of just how far off he still is with his game.

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