Commentary

Tiger saying all the right things

Updated: June 24, 2014, 4:07 PM ET
By Farrell Evans | ESPN.com

BETHESDA, Md. -- Deep into his career when he could no longer easily drive the basketball to the rim, Michael Jordan relied more on his fadeaway jumper. Shooting the ball toward the rim while falling backward, the fadeaway is one of the most difficult shots to defend in the game, and Jordan was one its best practitioners.

On Tuesday ahead of the Quicken Loans National at Congressional Country Club, Tiger Woods drew inspiration from Jordan's favorite shot for his own resurrection after a nearly three-month layoff after back surgery.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesTiger Woods will tee off Thursday at 8:12 a.m. ET with Jason Day and Jordan Spieth. It will be Woods' first competitive golf shots since a T-25 finish in the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral on March 9.

"I can't play the way I used to," Tiger said. "Just like MJ, I've got a fadeaway now. I've had to rely on different parts of my game and strategy and understand how course management skills are improved; where to miss it, how to miss it.

"And obviously the amount of shots that I've learned over the years, not just from my own trial and error but from older players that I've talked to, it's allowed me to be as consistent as I have over the course of my career."

At 38, Tiger has been a professional since the summer of 1996, when he won two PGA Tour events as a 20-year-old rookie. With 79 wins -- including 14 majors -- one infamous scandal involving a Cadillac Escalade slamming into a fire hydrant and numerous injuries, Tiger should have learned some lessons that would make him a wiser, more patient player and person.

At Congressional on Tuesday, he sounded like a sage humbled but clearheaded about this summer and the rest of his career.

Looking more like an NFL free safety than the typical tour player, Tiger was uncharacteristically realistic and honest about his chances of winning this week. He has accepted this tournament, perhaps, as something akin to a Double-A rehab assignment in preparation for the big show, the Open Championship, which begins July 17 at Royal Liverpool in England.

"Expectations don't change," he said. "[Winning] is the ultimate goal. It's just that it's going to be a little bit harder this time. I just haven't had the amount of prep and reps that I would like, but I'm good enough to play and I'm going to give it a go."

Good enough to play.

This doesn't sound like Tiger Woods. In the past, he always stated that he expected to win whenever he stepped into a competitive round. And he has proved he could do that to a greater percentage than any other player in the history of the game. But things are different now and he's better for acknowledging the changes in what he can physically do and in how the game has changed.

The nerve impingement in his back reinforced a lesson for him about paying attention to his body.

"Listening to my body, that's one thing that I have learned, stubbornly, over the years," Tiger said. "This injury is very different than pushing through my knee injuries in the past.

"I probably would have pushed through it and set myself back and then kept pushing harder and harder until stuff breaks."

Pushing hard is how Tiger became the greatest player of his generation. He's why most tour players now spend more time exercising and practicing than they do drinking beer and eating fatty foods. Tiger's values are now the game's accepted best practices -- a legacy that might surpass all of his wins.

But true to the method of the fadeaway jumper, Tiger understands he has to pull back to move forward sometimes if he wants to give himself the best of chance of ultimately breaking Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major wins.

"I just remember all the early years on tour when I used to run 30 miles a week and just push it, no matter how hurt I was, I would just go out there, still logging all the miles and do all the different things and still play tournament golf and I was winning, but I didn't realize how much damage I was doing to my body at the time," Tiger said. "I have to now pick my spots when I can and can't push. Before, when you're young, I just pushed it all the time."

Tiger is saying all the right things, but it's got to be hard for him to turn off those instincts that have carried him so far in the game.

Beginning Thursday morning at 8:12 ET at Congressional Country Club, we'll get to see his words tested in action.

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