19th hole: Expectations for Tiger Woods’ latest comeback - He’ll win

NASSAU, BAHAMAS - DECEMBER 03: Tiger Woods watches the trophy presentation during the final round of the Hero World Challenge at Albany course on December 3, 2017 in Nassau, Bahamas. (Photo by Ryan Young/PGA TOUR) Ryan Young/PGA Tour

19th hole: Expectations for Tiger Woods’ latest comeback - He’ll win

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19th hole: Expectations for Tiger Woods’ latest comeback - He’ll win

Even former President Obama sees the change in Tiger Woods.

After the two played golf at The Floridian on Jan. 13, Obama was heard to remark that there was “a lightness” around the 14-time major champion, who was approachable, posing for pictures and chatting with other guests. It’s an observation supported by several people who’ve spent time around Woods recently.

That might surprise fans whose fixed image of Woods is still that icily aloof superstar, game face permanently intact, every on-course step fiercely guarded by his Rottweiler-cum-caddie, Steve Williams. That impression is years out of date, from before off-course incidents, injuries, surgeries and assorted other indignities turned Superman into a humbled Clark Kent.

Yet public perceptions won’t be the most demanding standard Woods faces in his comeback this week at Torrey Pines. Like every legend in the autumn of a competitive career, Woods’ legacy is now his burden, forever condemned to be measured against the player he once was. And when you’re at worst the second-best player of all time, that’s a harsh spotlight in which to play and enjoy mortal golf.

Unrealistic fan expectations collide with Woods’ unreal accomplishments at places like Torrey Pines, where he has won eight times (including the 2008 U.S. Open). That combination of history and hype may be intoxicating for his admirers, but don’t bet on Woods inhaling those vapors.

“I don’t think Tiger is affected by anyone else’s expectations. His standards are so high that it doesn’t really matter what someone else’s expectations are, because they will never exceed his own expectations,” says Hank Haney, Woods’ former coach.

So what expectations are realistic for Tiger at Torrey?

“If he tightens up his short game I expect a top-10 finish,” Haney says. “I’m very confident in this comeback. I think he will win this year. I really believe that. I don’t see why he won’t play well. I don’t buy the rust thing. I didn’t see that out of Tiger in his career. He’d come back from a layoff and play well. When you hit balls into the bushes or two fairways over, that’s not rust, that’s a bad golf swing.”

Haney isn’t alone in his bullish outlook on the most shorted stock in golf.

“He looks like he’s going to be relevant, and he hasn’t looked like he could be relevant for the last three, four years,” says Claude Harmon III, who watched Woods play with Obama. “He’s driving it a long way. I mean he’s hammering it.”

Harmon likens Woods’ situation to that of Padraig Harrington, who had a seven-year drought before winning the 2015 Honda Classic. Harrington said afterward that his issue was not that he forgot how to win, he just struggled to put himself in the position to do so.

“Those guys don’t forget how to win. The problem is you have to get in a position where you can win,” Harmon says. “If he can get himself into a position again, he’s going to have a legit chance. The question is, can he get himself into that position with nine holes to go on Sunday? Because the competition now is unbelievable. He’s been away from the game a long time. He hasn’t felt that kind of pressure or adrenalin. If he’s healthy, he’s always going to shoot low rounds because of how good he is. If the bad round is 75, he’ll struggle to get in a position to win.”

Woods’ vaunted ability to rescue decent scores from poor ballstriking days deserted him in recent years, when his card often featured more squares than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Yet Haney doesn’t subscribe to the belief that he must now play his best to win.

“At his age and with everything he’s been through, the margins are tighter than they use to be,” he says. “He could win with his B+ game. He probably has to have an A- game now to win. I don’t think he needs a A+ game. I mean, he’s still Tiger Woods.”

And that’s the promise that makes this comeback by a healthy Woods feel so much different to others in recent years. Even if the performance at Torrey Pines falls short of the hype, even if the famously standoffish persona is more relaxed and even if the game is a little more mortal, he’s still Tiger Woods.

“I don’t buy the deal that nobody’s scared of him anymore,” Haney says. “He was playing against himself out there before, and that’s who he’s playing against now.” Gwk

 

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