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Tiger Tests His Back And His Patience

by Ron Green Jr. - December 8, 2014

WINDERMERE, FLORIDA | It was a vintage Tiger Woods performance in the Hero World Challenge at Isleworth.

It was, however, Jordan Spieth who delivered it.

While Spieth, just a week and 9,300 miles removed from his Australian Open victory, was dominating the all-star field with a performance reminiscent of Tiger at his ferocious best, Woods played the dual role of tournament host and resident curiosity.

The good news for Woods:

He played four rounds free of muscular or skeletal pain, a necessary distinction because he spent Friday and Saturday sweating out a fever, losing the few bites of food he tried to keep down and talking with a low, raspy voice that was a passable impersonation of Clint Eastwood.

Woods’ reworked swing, particularly with his driver, looks closer to the way it did in his prime. He is swinging the club rather than fighting it. Several times, he ripped tee shots that cut corners and reinforced his contention that physical ailments largely were responsible for his struggles this year.

“He looked like he was trying to steer it in play the last five, six, seven years. Today it looked like he really let it go and trusted it for the most part,” said Steve Stricker, Tiger’s Sunday playing partner and something of his on-course consigliere.

The bad news:

Woods dipped more chili than a south Texas line cook.

His short game was, in a word, awful. His word.

Nine times across four days Woods chunked pitch shots the same way Joe the plumber does on Saturday morning at the local muni. It happened so often it ceased to be a surprise.

When it happened for the final time Sunday – two little shots that never had a chance to scale the slope to the right of the 13th green – Woods did what the rest of us do. He quick-hit the third one with a little dose of pepper spray applied, sending his ball skittering across the green into three-putt range, building a snowman just in time for the holidays.

Stricker politely referred to it as a “chipping escapade” and said if you turn the par-5 disaster into a birdie, Woods would have shot 67 on Sunday. (Actually, it would have been 68.)

That would be easier to accept if the chunked chips were a one-off.

They weren’t.

To be fair, Jimmy Walker and Bubba Watson had similar greenside adventures on Sunday.

The pitching issues were, Woods insisted, symptomatic of his latest swing changes, the ones being incorporated in cooperation with Chris Como, his new “swing consultant.”

When Woods changes his full swing, he changes his short-game technique too. That’s in contrast to, say, Phil Mickelson, who has a full-swing coach (Rick Smith then Butch Harmon) and a short-game coach (Dave Pelz).

Woods possessed the greatest short game ever when he led the Tour in scrambling twice while working with Harmon. He also led the Tour in scrambling while working with Hank Haney. He never led the Tour in scrambling under Sean Foley though he did rank fourth in 2012.

“He’s always been one that his long swing gets into his putting and short game,” Stricker said. “That’s just what he does. He’s fighting some of those things in his chipping technique he’s trying to do in his full swing.”

What has become familiar to Woods in his full swing left his short game looking like Groundhog Day with the same thing happening over and over.

“If I put my backswing in the same position that I used to have it in and then make this new … this release pattern, I’m going to hit it fat every time,” Woods said. “From about 40 yards out, it’s pretty solid, pretty good, which is nice.

“Anything inside of that, I’ve got to get used to a new release pattern.”

That’s the theme this week – a new release pattern.

He’ll get it. He’s too good and too determined not to get it but to watch him keep making the same mistake around the greens was strange. To be fair, Isleworth – despite what Spieth shot – is a nightmare for anyone in the habit of missing greens. Graeme McDowell diplomatically said it’s not a course he’d bring his father to play.

This event, staged in Woods’ former neighborhood, which is dotted by moss-draped trees and random pieces of oversized yard art, was an opportunity for Tiger to test himself in competition after going dark following his missed cut in the PGA Championship in August.

He has rehabbed his back and his swing and though he finished 26 shots behind Spieth, Woods left Isleworth encouraged.

“I made some progress,” he said.

Woods plans to work on his game for another week – it’s clear what needs polishing – then shut it down for Christmas. Exactly when and where he starts his 2015 schedule remains a closely guarded secret, as usual. He won’t go to the Middle East in January and there’s some thought he will open at Phoenix before heading to Torrey Pines.

The question is what we’ll see from Tiger in the future.

It’s the same question now being asked of Jordan Spieth

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