Monday, December 5, 2011
Debating Tiger's victory in detail
Each Monday during the 2012 PGA Tour season, the golf experts from around ESPN will weigh in on the pressing issues in the game.
What, it's not 2012 yet? Well, since Tiger Woods won at the Chevron World Challenge, where he defeated Zach Johnson by birdieing the final two holes, we at ESPN.com decided to get a jump-start on next season.
So enjoy the debut edition of Monday Four-Ball. Comments welcome.
1. What's been the difference maker for Tiger Woods' returning to form?
Michael Collins, ESPN.com senior golf writer: For the first time in well we don't know how long because Tiger's been hiding injuries for so long from everyone, he's healthy. Now that he doesn't have to make any compensations for his injuries, the swing changes he and Sean Foley are trying to implement can finally take hold. Now that he's healthy, he can feel the way he wants to swing, so when the swing is off, he can fix it. He couldn't do that before when he was hurt.
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Farrell Evans, ESPN.com senior golf writer: Tiger has had spurts of good play throughout the year. But Chevron was really the first week that he put it all together for four rounds to finish off a tournament. When he needed to hit it close and make birdies, he did it. So I don't know if there has been one difference maker, as much as all of his efforts to find his swing and get healthy have finally culminated in a solid week of play.
Bob Harig, ESPN.com senior golf writer:The biggest change is Tiger's ability to now hit the ball with authority. His iron shots are much crisper, more solid, than at earlier times since working with Sean Foley. And he's figured out how to fix his swing when things are not going so well.
Woods is also able to hit all of the shots he likes to hit. Draws, fades, whatever the situation calls for. When he lost in a playoff to Graeme McDowell at the Chevron a year ago, Woods said he could only play one shot, a draw. Having the confidence to play different ways helps when the conditions are as challenging as they were at Sherwood.
Kevin Maguire, ESPN.com senior golf editor: For Tiger, at least this week, the difference was the course. He got to play a venue that's barely 7,000 yards long and has five par-5s. On several occasions, Woods was able to hit long irons into par-5s when going for them in 2, often out of the rough. Even if his driver didn't find the fairway, as long as he wasn't behind a tree or in a hazard (which did happen once in a while), the former world No. 1 still owned a legitimate shot at getting home in 2.
Sure, his putting looked better than it had in weeks when he was making 5-footers to save par and keep a round going, but taking advantage of a short course proved crucial to escaping with his first victory anywhere in more than two years.
Andy North, two-time U.S. Open champion and ESPN golf analyst: I don't think there's just one thing. First of all he's worked hard on his golf swing and he feels like that's a little bit better. He's healthy, or healthier than he's been in a long time, and because of that, he's been able to train instead of just rehab, which makes a big difference. Also, looking at it from the outside, he's starting to figure out his personal life.
2. What are the implications from Tiger's win for his 2012 season?
Michael Collins, ESPN.com senior golf writer: When Tiger tees it up in 2012, especially here in the U.S., TV ratings are going to skyrocket even compared to last year when he plays in a tournament. With a win under his belt, people are going to expect to see the dominant player they've seen in the past. In effect, he's going to have even more pressure to win every week. People love a redemption story and the chance to see Tiger returning to form is something no one will pass up.
Farrell Evans, ESPN.com senior golf writer: The win at Chevron positions Tiger to take a little momentum into next year. But he must also understand that he beat a very small field and against a full field he would have had a lot more challengers on Sunday. Any win is good, but a win back in the late summer or the fall in a full-field event would have been a more significant measure of what we should expect from him in 2012.
Bob Harig, ESPN.com senior golf writer: The biggest is confidence. Woods heads into the brief offseason with a good feeling about his game. The size of the field is causing consternation among some, but Woods battled a lot of different weather elements, overcame a poor third round, and overtook a major champion -- remember, Zach Johnson relegated Woods to a second-place finish at the 2007 Masters -- by birdieing the last two holes to win by 1. That has to mean something.
Perhaps less important but still noteworthy is that he won't have to answer the question about not winning. The victory might not be official, but he earned world ranking points, and certainly it was a burden lifted.
Kevin Maguire, ESPN.com senior golf editor: I'm not ready to start the Jack Nicklaus/18 major championships watch just yet, but the sky really is the limit now for Tiger heading into 2012. If nothing else, the win gives him a huge amount of confidence, even though we won't see him for another seven weeks, and when we do, it will be on the European Tour in Abu Dhabi.
Tiger lost in a playoff last year at the Chevron and that didn't exactly portend great play from him in the coming year, so buyer beware.
Andy North, two-time U.S. Open champion and ESPN golf analyst: If he starts getting himself in a better place and he's physically able to do the things he wants to do, there's no reason he can't play as well as he wants to.
3. Predict the total number of Tiger wins in 2012.
Should fans expect a Tiger victory at the Masters? Two of ESPN.com's experts think he'll pull off the feat to capture a 15th major championship this April.
Michael Collins, ESPN.com senior golf writer: Four wins total. Tiger will win one major, the Masters, one other PGA Tour event he plays in, and two more wins worldwide. But before you get too nuts about what I just wrote, six guys won twice last year on the PGA Tour.
Farrell Evans, ESPN.com senior golf writer: For Tiger to continue winning at the rate he did over the past decade, he's got to play more than his usual 16 to 18 events. The fields are as deep as ever and he no longer intimidates players with his mere presence at a tournament. I think he wins once, at the Masters in April. He can play Augusta National in the dark.
Bob Harig, ESPN.com senior golf writer: I like three. It's not the huge haul we're used to seeing from Woods, but after two years without a victory on the PGA Tour, it's not an insignificant total. If you press me, I'll go with Doral, Memorial and the British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Anne's. So that answers the major question, too.
Kevin Maguire, ESPN.com senior golf editor: It might be a reach considering he only beat 17 golfers at the Chevron, but I'll go as high as two victories in the coming season. I don't see either of those being a major, at least not from what we saw from Woods' game this week. Did he walk with a slightly more confident gait? Definitely. But that swagger needs a little something more behind it before a 15th major hits his résumé.
Andy North, two-time U.S. Open champion and ESPN golf analyst: I would think the over/under is about four. From what I've seen, it looks like he's physically able to do things with his legs that he hasn't done for a while. That will give him confidence.
He's played well the last three or four times out, and it seems like he's closer to what he wants to do from a golf standpoint. Also, he finished the tournament last week. He had a big putt at 17 and a big putt at 18, which is sort of what he used to do, so maybe he's closer to where he wants to be.
4. What are the question marks surrounding Tiger's game?
Michael Collins, ESPN.com senior golf writer: There are two big question marks for Tiger and one will always be there from now on: his health. Can he stay healthy?
The other question mark is his putting. For the last two years, it has been streaky at best and horrific at worst. The scary thing about his putting: Tiger's injuries didn't force him to adjust anything with his stroke.
Farrell Evans, ESPN.com senior golf writer: Tiger is still not hitting his driver long and straight. How many realistic birdie chances is he going to give himself hitting irons and 3-woods off every tee? And he says with the new swing he's hitting the ball a lot longer with his irons and that it's been a process to hit his yardages with pinpoint precision.
Also, he might still have the greatest short game in history, but he's getting older. He'll be 36 on Dec. 30 and his short game has shown strain since he started working with Sean Foley. I don't know if that's because they spend so much time on his full swing -- neglecting his short game -- but he's made more mistakes around the greens in clutch situations in the past few years than I had seen him make in his first 12 years on tour. His stats might not necessarily reflect his fall off in the short game, but he's no longer hitting all the shots at will. On Sunday at the Chevron, he did just enough to beat Zach Johnson and 16 other guys.
Bob Harig, ESPN.com senior golf writer: Driving and putting. Woods is never going to lead the tour in driving accuracy, but his ability to hit his driver better will be a big part of any success he has going forward. Woods didn't need to hit many drivers at The Lakes in Sydney for the Australian Open, nor at Sherwood Country Club. And there were a couple of notable tee shots he just could not get in place, such as the par-5 fifth hole, where after Day 1, he was scrambling but fortunate it was not a long hole. Consistency with the driver is a must.
And then there is putting. Woods made those two clutch putts on the final two holes Sunday, and neither was easy. But the fact that he was experimenting with different grips during the tournament was somewhat startling, as were the number of 3-putts. Perhaps now that he feels better about his swing, there is more work to be done on the putting stroke.
Kevin Maguire, ESPN.com senior golf editor: I'm still not convinced Woods' driver is in a happy place where he'll pull it out of the bag Sunday on the back nine of a major when he's in the hunt. On the par-5 16th Sunday, he went iron, iron to play short of a creek, taking a page out of short-hitter Zach Johnson's book. Remember, Johnson's the guy who won the Masters by laying up on every single par-5 back in 2007. That's not Tiger golf.
Granted, Woods never owned the straightest of drivers in his career, but some consistency needs to return to that part of his game if he's going to start thinking about adding to his 14 major championships.
Andy North, two-time U.S. Open champion and ESPN golf analyst: I don't think the question marks around his game are any different than the question marks surrounding any other player's game. It looks like he's back to playing how he wants to play, so the questions about his game are the normal questions: Can he stay healthy? Can he make putts? He made putts on the last two holes this week. If he misses them, then we're talking about "Can he ever win again?" At this point, I don't think he has any concerns that are different from any other player's.