Saturday 21 July 2018

Proving class is permanent

Tiger Woods. Photo: Getty Images
Tiger Woods. Photo: Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

Universal agreement as to the quality of the latest comeback by Tiger Woods in the Hero World Challenge at Albany GC in the Bahamas, prompts the mischievous thought that he actually needs the money. As it happens, the $3.5m limited-field event which carries a top prize of $1m, comes less than three weeks after a highly significant development on the cash-in-sport front.

In the season-ending Nitto ATP Finals in London in mid-November, Roger Federer brought his career prize-money to $110,235,682, so surpassing the target of $110,061,012 set by Woods for an individual sportsman. Which means that a reasonably high finish today would, in fact, restore El Tigre to long-time dominance among sport's serious money-men.

After an opening 69 on Thursday, Woods made no attempt to hide his delight that protracted torment might finally be at an end. "It was fun to be out there and be part of the scorecard again," he said. Most heartening would have been ball-speeds as high as 178 to 180mph, which would place him in the top 20 on tour.

The only serious problem, which was never an issue when at the peak of his powers, concerned chipping and pitching. Lack of confidence caused him to duff three efforts on Thursday. Overnight, however, there was compelling evidence of the determination which prompted the Albany course designer, Ernie Els, to refer to Woods during the tournament as "a great competitor with an amazing talent for the game."

So it was that the uncertain chipping and pitching action of Thursday was replaced in the second round by the confidence of old. This was especially evident on the short 17th where, finding himself without a clear putting route to the hole, he played the most impeccable 20-yard sand-wedge chip from the green's surface to about three feet from the target.

Further evidence came in his play of the five par fives. Having been a disappointing one-over par for them in the opening round, he played them in four under on Friday.

Harsh reality struck, however, in winds gusting to 20mph for yesterday's third round. Though certain shot-making remained impressive, his driving and finesse play lacked the rhythm of the opening two rounds and with birdies becoming increasingly elusive, he took 40 for the front nine for a round of 75.

So, how close was he to serious competitive well-being? "I'm just getting back," he replied with understandable caution. "I still have a long way to go. It's going to take time. A lot more practice and a lot more training."

In this context, one could imagine Woods having envied the enduring consistency of Federer, now a tennis veteran at 36, while his own earnings stalled dramatically after revelations in 2009 about his private life and a string of long-term injuries in recent years.

Still, the money has continued to roll into the Woods' coffers from other sources. He signed a 13-club contract last January with TaylorMade, which he is using this weekend, including driver, three-wood and two-iron. His putter is a Scotty Cameron Newport 2 GSS model and he's playing a Bridgestone Tour B XS ball.

As to his comeback: the player's most telling comment came on Friday evening when a second-round 68 left him in fifth position, five strokes behind clear leader, Charlie Hoffman on 132 (12-under par). "It proves that the surgery was successful," he said, "and the rehab has been fantastic. Now I've got a chance to go out there and play competitive golf again."

Yet commentators seemed surprised at the free-swinging mobility of the former world number one. Why so? The spinal fusion which Woods underwent would be less inhibiting for instance than the surgery of PGA Tour veteran, Ken Duke, who won the Travelers Tournament in June 2013 at the age of 44 years, four months and 25 days.

Duke did it with two 16-inch titanium rods bolted to either side of his lower spine. And they've been there since he was 15. Known as a Cotrel-Dubousset (C-D) Instrumentation, its function was to correct the effects of scoliosis which caused a 72-degree curvature of his spine.

When I wondered how a player could overcome such a serious back condition in golf, of all sports, he replied: "Everyone's golf swing is different, and my rotational movement is limited in that I only take the club back to a certain point. And I have a physiotherapist who works on my flexibility and rotation."

On watching Duke hit shots, leading coach Pete Cowen observed: "That's a powerful-looking swing. You've got to remember that rotation is not about turning the bones. Do that and you'll hurt your back. It involves the muscles of your whole body and Ken has obviously found a very effective way of compensating."

Meanwhile, Duke is conscious of his debt to medicine. "I try to make [orthopaedic] hospital visits every chance I get," he said. "Just to see affected kids, mainly aged from 13 to 16. And I talk to doctors and thank them for all they've done for scoliosis."

Observing this, the most encouraging of the various Woods comebacks so far, brought to mind once more the chilling words of Cary Middlecoff from almost 21 years ago, which I have previously quoted. They came as a reaction to the amazement of tour colleagues on learning that in sodden conditions in the Mercedes Championships at La Costa in January 1997, Woods had two-putted the 562-yard 17th hole for birdie.

A drive of 305 yards was followed by a three-wood second shot which cleared a greenside bunker guarding the approach to the pin - a huge carry of 257 yards.

Middlecoff believed there would be a price to be paid for such prodigious striking. "He can play, but he's going to hurt himself," warned the twice former US Open champion who, as a qualified dentist, would have had a keen appreciation of medical matters. "A bad back put me out of business and the way Tiger swings, he's going to tear his back up before he reaches his full potential. The body just can't stand the way he jerks his hip and everything at impact."

The first indication of physical problems for Woods was in December 2002 when he had cysts removed from his left knee. In May 2008, he underwent arthroscopic surgery on the knee. Then, following an astonishing victory a month later in the US Open at La Costa - his 14th and last Major triumph - he had significant reconstructive surgery on the same joint.

In May 2011, an ACL sprain caused further left-knee problems. Then, recurring back problems led to a microdiscectomy in May 2014. And the procedure was repeated in September 2015. Finally, Woods underwent a spinal fusion last April, which seems to have been a success.

His last tournament victory was by seven strokes, in the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone in August 2013. On this evidence, the wait for the next one may soon be at an end.

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