Minutes into the live first-round coverage of the Hero World Challenge, Golf Channel analyst Trevor Immelman already saw something troubling.
“Look at these divots,” Immelman said, pointing to spots in front of the fourth green at Albany. Immelman, a member at the Hero host course, could tell the turf was wet just from the TV coverage. That meant difficult chipping conditions. That could mean problems for Tiger Woods, whose short game has been dismal in recent comebacks.
Fellow analyst Brandel Chamblee saw something hopeful in Woods’ decision to use a wedge to chip.
“That means he feels good about his chipping,” Chamblee said.
He soon would see evidence to the contrary.
I spent the first round of the Hero in the analysts’ viewing room at Golf Channel with Immelman, Chamblee and Frank Nobilo, who were doing pre-game and post-game analysis with host Ryan Burr. I wanted to know what they were thinking as they watched Woods. And I wanted to know how they prepared to discuss Woods’ latest comeback.
Golf on a whole different level
I’ll delve into this in more detail in the next few days, but my key takeaway is this: These guys think about golf on a whole different level than 99 percent of their viewers. The four hours I spent with them, off camera, Thursday was Ph.D.-level stuff. I only wished that viewers could have pushed a button on their TV remotes and joined me in eavesdropping on the analysts’ running commentary about Woods’ round. I found it fascinating.
Woods’ opening 69 offered many reasons for optimism, with some caveats, specifically that nettlesome short game. But let’s not forget: He’s still Tiger Woods.
“Justin (Thomas) isn’t getting the full scope of it,” Immelman said. “He’s playing in front of 100 people on Albany. Try playing with (Woods) in New York or Charlotte.”
To be fair, Thomas walked away with a 3-under 69 – same as Woods – though he looked less than comfortable in his outward, even-par 36.
“I’m curious with Justin Thomas, because this is the first time he’s been in the kitchen like that. . . This is a guy who’s won a PGA Championship and won seven or eight times in 15 months, but it’s just a different environment,” Nobilo said.
There’s always that sense that Woods is 2-up on the first tee, and that’s true even after all of his injuries.
Tiger knows bad golf
“Tiger’s seen more bad golf than anyone,” Chamblee said.
Chamblee, being Chamblee, has run the numbers on this. A while ago, Chamblee researched the records of players who had been paired with Woods on weekends. It wasn’t pretty.
“The ones who did (well) were the ones who didn’t have any psychological investment in it,” he said. “They were typically middle-of-the-road players.”
He pointed to Billy Mayfair (the only person to beat Woods in a playoff, in 1998), Bob May (who took Woods to a memorable playoff in the 2000 PGA Championship), Robert Rock (who defeated Woods at Abu Dhabi in 2012) and Ed Fiori (who overcame Woods’ 54-hole lead at the Quad Cities Classic in 1996).
“It wasn’t players of his ilk; it was players who had nothing to lose who would say in the media center the night before, ‘I’m just going to go out there and have fun,’” Chamblee said. “Anyone who in any way could dream of being competitive with him would shoot 75.’”
You’re a different golfer playing with Tiger
And we’re not just talking about the Tiger Woods of 2001, at the height of his powers. Chamblee reminded me that Billy Horschel wanted to play with Woods in 2013 on the weekend in San Diego. Horschel shot 151 over the final 36 holes with Woods. He also noted that Rickie Fowler shot 82 at The Memorial playing with Woods in 2012. (Actually, it was worse; Fowler shot 84.)
“It doesn’t matter what you say or what you what you think, you’re a different golfer when you play with Tiger Woods. . .” Chamblee said. “He costs them money. It would be less expensive for them to pay to play with him in the Wednesday pro-am.”
It’s funny, but he’s not joking.
Throughout the afternoon, members of the “Golf Central” production staff filtered into the analysts’ room. They wanted to know what the analysts wanted to discuss on the one-hour post-game show, what video needed to be pulled and how to organize it.
Chamblee wanted to see Woods’ rocket 2-iron into the par-5 third and his poor chip on No. 4.
“The swing looks great and he feels good, and then we get slapped with reality,” Chamblee said, referring to the stubbed chip shot.
Chamblee perked up when Trackman data indicated that Woods’ ball speed on No. 7 was 180 mph. “That’s big-boy ball speed,” he said. He noted that Woods swing speed was faster than a year ago at the Hero. He checked the ball-speed data on a proprietary PGA Tour website and found that Woods would crack the top-10 in that category. As Tiger might say, he still has his speed.
Tiger’s chipping still causes concern
But Woods’ chipping issues still nagged Chamblee. He finally saw it again on No. 9, where Woods’ majestic 3-wood into the par-5 finished short and left of the green. Woods stubbed another chip, blasted a putt past the hole and made bogey.
A few minutes later, Brooks Koepka faced a similar chip. “There’s Tiger divot,” Immelman said, pointing to the screen, near Koepka’s ball. Koepka chipped to tap-in distance, just like Woods would have done 10 years ago.
With Nobilo out of the room filming a promo, Chamblee and Immelman went deep on the chipping issue. That was one of the strengths of Immelman’s game and, he said, “It’s the one thing I still do as well as I used to.”
Immelman demonstrated a proper chipping technique – shoulders level, upper body moving toward the target. By contrast, he saw that Woods was tipping his spine backward, causing him to chunk his chips. Chamblee, a swing geek, liked Immelman’s observation and teed up his colleague in the post-game show. “That’s a dead giveaway that his spine is tilted back,” Immelman told “Golf Central” viewers.
Comebacks are rare, but Tiger is still Tiger
Of the three analysts, Nobilo seemed more inclied toward the big picture. He has a sportman’s appreciation for Woods’ legacy, and doesn’t want to see it tarnished by Woods becoming “a ceremonial golfer.”
“If you Google true comebacks in sports, they’re very rare,” Nobilo said.
But this could be different. Nobilo drew an analogy between the Tommy John surgery that has revived so many baseball pitchers’ careers – “It changed the industry in a weird way,” he said – and Woods’ back surgery.
“If he could be healthy and play competitively for a while, it could give a lot of people hope,” Nobilo said.
For one day, at least, Woods gave many people – fans, media, the PGA Tour, sponsors, even other players – reason for hope. Will it last?
Well, that’s why we watch.