Rude: Even expectations for Tiger change, eventually

Tiger Woods on the eve of the PGA Tour's 2014 Quicken Loans National.

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Jeff Rude’s “Hate To Be Rude” column appears on Golfweek.com on Wednesday.

BETHESDA, Md. – This wasn’t a typical Wednesday pro-am for Tiger Woods. This one was more about tuneup, about refining, than usual. When you haven’t played a competitive round since March 9, when you are coming back from March 31 microdiscectomy, an 18-hole walk with amateur partners can be about trying to scrape off a layer of rust.

Pro-ams generally aren’t something to get excited about, unless you’re one of the amateurs, or pay attention to. But the Quicken Loans National pro-am was different because it was more about final rehearsal than hit-and-giggle. It allowed Woods and observers to take stock of where his game is.

Early returns suggest this: Rusty and inconsistent despite the fact he said his back felt great.

Woods consistently missed right off the tee, particularly on his first nine, the back at Congressional Country Club. He hit one fairway and three greens in regulation on that nine before altering his grip and playing better on the front.

He used the words “loose shots” and, for the second day in a row, “rusty” when talking about his game. For the day, he in effect made two birdies–at 17, where he let a soldier putt for him from 3 feet, and at his last, No. 9, where he converted from 5 feet.

“I hit some loose shots today, but I also hit some really good ones,” Woods said.

To hear him, the wayward shots had to do with too weak of a grip. So he adjusted around the turn.

“That’s one of the reasons I was losing the ball to the right,” Woods said, “so I just had to strengthen it. It’s something we were working on last week and it just tends to creep over into a weaker position. But I strengthened it again and started piping it again.”

If Woods is to contend here, at the tournament benefiting his foundation, he will need to drive the ball better and stay out of the thick, penal Congressional rough. Defending champion Bill Haas said if the Tour played thick rough like this weekly, “we’d see more wrist injuries and we’d be exhausted.”

It follows that after Woods admitted being a “little bit rusty,” he said he’ll need to “manage my way around this golf course.”

“The guys aren’t going to go really low here,” he said.

The day before, Woods said that his goal hasn’t changed, that he tees it up to win. “Expectations don’t change,” he said.

Well, they do change eventually for everyone. Having won five times on the PGA Tour last year, Woods isn’t there yet. But expectations lower as players age. Jack Nicklaus’ expectations at 45 certainly weren’t as high as they were at 25 or 35. It will be interesting to see how that shakes out for Woods as he plays through his 40s and doesn’t win at the same percentage rate.

Expectations change, too, when your swing isn’t grooved just yet. That’s how Woods can be viewed now. On one hand, we see someone who has won 79 Tour titles, including 14 major championships. On the other, we see someone who is trying to play his way into competitive shape and get ready for the season’s final two majors: the Open Championship in July and the PGA Championship in August.

Haas apparently put more emphasis on Woods’ consistent past when he said, “I’d expect nothing other than a good score from him.”

We’re conditioned to that. But it might take him time to get going again.

Apparently Las Vegas thinks so. The Bovada Sportsbook doesn’t expect 2013 form, for Woods is fourth on the list of favorites at 16-1. He trails Jason Day and Justin Rose at 12-1 and 20-year-old Jordan Spieth at 14-1. What’s more, the odds of Woods finishing in the top five are 2 1/2 to 1 and 5-4 for the top 10.

I’ve not been one to doubt Woods over the years, but if he finishes in the top five here, unprepared as he is, then he’s better than I ever thought he was. I hate to use the word “lock,” but I’d be shocked if he placed in the first handful.

Bovada seems to think Woods will regain form fairly quickly, though, for he’s listed as a 7-1 favorite at the Open and PGA. There’s no way to know what side smart money should be on there until we get an inkling here.

The only certainty is that golf is glad to have him playing again.

“I think we all love having him back out here,” Haas said. “He’s the lifeline of our Tour, the reason everybody gets excited to watch.”

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