Keeping a close eye on Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods' return to competition this week at the Quicken Loans National is perhaps the most eagerly anticipated event of the 2014 golf season.
Two weeks after Martin Kaymer's dominating performance at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, will be the setting for major championship-like buzz as Tiger plays in his first tournament since undergoing back surgery in late March.
Having him in the field at Congressional will provide an enormous jolt to a sport that has struggled in his absence to attract a TV audience for its marquee events.
The golf industry has a plethora of motives for wanting Tiger back in the limelight. He is the game's biggest draw -- more important to his sport than any single professional athlete in the world.
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But what is at stake this week in Maryland for the 14-time major champion?
With the start of the Open Championship less than a month away, Tiger must be attempting to play himself into good form for a run at Hoylake, where he won the Claret Jug in 2006. And the PGA Championship in August is at Valhalla, where he took his second consecutive Wanamaker Trophy in 2000.
Breaking Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major victories drives most of Tiger's decisions at this point in his career. It's unlikely he would be making this relatively swift return to competition if he were just playing for FedEx Cup and Ryder Cup points. Besides, as long as he's healthy, Tom Watson should make Tiger a captain's pick to play in his eighth Ryder Cup in September.
Then there is the consideration of Quicken Loans, which signed a multiyear deal in March to become the title sponsor of the event run by the Tiger Woods Foundation, an organization that Tiger started with his father, Earl Woods, in 1996 to create youth programs.
Certainly, Tiger wants to do everything he can to support his own event.
The 79-time PGA Tour winner will be admittedly rusty when play starts Thursday. So even though he has won twice at Congressional, no one should expect him to come out and pull off a feat like the seven straight birdies that Kevin Streelman had Sunday to win the Travelers Championship.
At Congressional, Tiger will struggle with consistency. How could he not hit some poor shots after only recently starting full swings? Sure, he has the highest standards for himself, but if he were to be completely honest, he should be surprised to contend in or win this event.
Still, Tiger should make the cut of top 70 and ties, something he has failed to do only 10 times worldwide since he turned pro in 1996.
This week at Congressional should be viewed primarily as an edict on his physical fitness to play pain-free golf. If the surgery was a success and Tiger is fully healed, he should be able to focus exclusively on sharpening his game for his remaining schedule of events.
The progress for him toward major championship readiness will likely occur incrementally as he settles back into the rhythms and pressures of tournament play. For the sake of finding some feel for competition, Tiger should also play next week at the Greenbrier Classic in West Virginia, where he last played in 2012, missing the cut.
While the former Stanford All-American said he made the decision to come back under the guidance of his medical team, he might easily have determined that he could return to competition with a tolerable level of pain.
Unbeknownst to most of the world at the time, he famously won the 2008 U.S. Open, his last major victory, with two stress fractures of the left tibia. He has seemingly played through some form of discomfort throughout his career.
In his three 2014 PGA Tour starts, he was bothered with back pain.
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After pulling out of the Honda Classic in March during the final round due to his back injury, it harkened back to the issues he first experienced in August during the Barclays, where he finished in a tie for second.
Following the Honda, he played the next week at Doral, where the pain made it difficult for him to bend down to pick the ball out of the cup. Shortly thereafter, he decided not to play the Arnold Palmer Invitational or the Masters and underwent microdiscectomy surgery.
Before sitting out this year's first two majors, the last time Tiger had missed two consecutive Grand Slam events was in 2011, when he withdrew from the U.S. Open and Open Championship to rest his left knee and an Achilles tendon that he injured that April during the third round of the Masters.
When he returned to action at that year's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in August, he finished in a tie for 37th. The next week he missed the cut at the PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club. It was only his third missed cut in a major as a professional.
Tiger was healthy in Atlanta, but he was in the midst of a major swing overhaul with his instructor, Sean Foley, and had only recently been healthy enough to practice. Now, after five wins in 2013, he's in a comfortable place with his swing and his belief in Foley's philosophy.
More than anything, the Quicken Loans National offers Tiger an excellent opportunity to make an initial assessment of his game heading into the year's final two majors and the rest of year. He might not make a big jump from 209th in the FedEx Cup standings into the top 125 that make the playoffs, but that's OK.
The best takeaway from this week could be that the former world No. 1 is again playing competitive golf and is pain free. It won't be vintage Tiger, but it represents hope for his future.
There was a lot of speculation that the surgery would keep him off the tour for the remainder of the season -- luring the game into a kind of collective anxiety about his future and the future of the golf without him.
Now we can rest some of those fears until the next storm arises or when the inevitability of his retirement is finally upon us.
Tiger doesn't have to win this week to prove that he's back or energized for the Open Championship and the PGA Championship. After a long spring without him, the world of golf should hold off on any lofty expectations for him in the start of the summer.
Just let him play. It's a very hard game, even for the best to ever swing a golf club.
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