Woods had been excited coming into the second major of his latest comeback, I’m sure even a 14-time major winner still gets amped in anticipation of moments like this at one of America’s finest layouts. A triple bogey at the very first hole from prime position however, would be enough to deflate most, but Woods knows better than anyone not to throw in the towel early in a US Open. Especially this one as it turns out, where the cut was made at eight-over.
To the naked eye, Woods bounced back from that opening hole with some solid play in the company of World No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas but a couple of double bogies later in the round saw him sign for as decent an eight-over 78 as one might possibly compile.
A two-over 72 Friday had him shy of the cutline by two strokes with a (+10) total that notables like Jason Day (+12), Sergio Garcia (+14) and certainly John Rahm (+15), would have traded him for.
Suprisingly it has been Tiger’s putter that has let him down of late. PHOTO: Warren Little/Getty Images.
Woods also departed Shinnecock with his position in the game now unquestioned, that despite a litany of injuries, surgeries and comebacks, he’s most certainly not out there just making up the numbers. His play since his return from almost the entire 2017 season away has shown us that the ‘new’ Tiger is more and more reminiscent of the Tiger of old.
We all harboured concerns for what we might see when the announcement came that he would make his return at his Hero World Challenge event in The Bahamas last December. This was the same man who emerged from a near nine-month public hibernation as a Captain’s Assistant at the Presidents Cup in New Jersey in September, stating publically that the best he’s been able to muster thus far since his back surgery in March were 60-yard wedge shots.
He backed that up by feeding a Tiger-starved media contingent a wonderful response to a question fishing for his thoughts on his possible career mortality – “I don’t know what my future holds for me” – but there he was in The Bahamas a few weeks later, unveiling a longer, more powerful action than he’s been able to take at a ball since Anthony Kim was last seen on Tour.
At the 2017 Presidents Cup Woods stated he was only up to hitting 60 yard wedges, before returning in The Bahamas just a few months later. PHOTO: Getty Images/Elsa.
Most impressive in The Bahamas and then in the ultimate litmus test on the state of his game, his return to a PGA TOUR event in February in San Diego, has been the surprising increase in club head speed – and therefore, length – he’s been able to generate. His golf swing looks far from the pained action he was forced to put into service until his successful anterior lumbar interbody fusion, which involved removing the L5-S1 intervertebral disc and then inserting fusion material to connect the L5 and S1 vertebrae.
One can’t imagine ‘fusing’ and ‘removing’ discs could do anything but inhibit flexibility and freedoms in a golf swing but Woods, who has remained extremely fit in every other way possible throughout his ordeals, has a new lease of life in his golf game at age 42.
A long overdue nod to embracing modern technology has aided his progress. Woods’ long-term partner Nike’s decision to quit the equipment game allowed him to dabble a little for the first time in decades, with his bag featuring a jumble of brands before settling on deals to play TaylorMade clubs and Bridgestone balls.
Leading into the U.S. Open week, Woods was ranked an impressive 26th in driving distance on the PGA TOUR with an average knock of 304.8 yards. There was certainly no player his age or older ahead of him on the list and there were plenty regarded for their ‘bomber’ status – J.B. Holmes, Adam Scott and Thomas Pieters – who were all a rung or two below him.
Ball striking improvements aside, arguments whether Woods could contend, let alone win again on Tour, were quickly put to bed in his fourth start back where he played strongly on a difficult golf course to finish 12th at The Honda Classic. Woods took that surge of confidence on to his next two starts in his adopted home state of Florida, cementing a triumphant return to relevance by flirting with his 80th PGA Tour victory at the Valspar Championship in Tampa, ultimately finishing tied for 2nd a stroke back from Paul Casey.
Woods showed this comeback was different by contending, and eventually finishing runner-up, at the Valspar Championship. PHOTO: Getty Images/Sam Greenwood.
Another top-10 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where Woods has won on eight previous occasions, had the golfing world daring to dream about a potential green jacket run on his return to The Masters in April.
While that dream turned out to be just that, a tie for 32nd being creditable but hardly inspirational, the string of events from February through to Augusta National in April also left us under no illusion that this was a more physically durable Woods than past iterations.
Swinging from the heels and putting it together for four rounds was the first hurdle passed back in December. After a few months of work on his game and physical conditioning, he was back to face the challenge of playing several events inside a month. The Florida swing of three events where he featured in the heat of the battle in all three, was completed without inconvenience.
While the physical boxes have been ticked off, one after another, Woods conceded at The Memorial Tournament in May that he’s still searching for his ‘operating rhythm’, so to speak, putting all of the pieces together to get back into the winner’s circle.
“I’ve had little building blocks along the way and I keep getting a little bit better, a little bit more refined, and you see the results,” Woods said.
“If I just make a few more putts like I did earlier in the year, when I was putting really well, you put those two together and then I’ll have something.”
RIGHT: Woods is now faced with competitors like Justin Thomas who grew up idolising him. PHOTO: Warren Little/Getty Images.
Of course, it goes without saying that the public have lapped up his return. Old and newer fans are back on the Tiger Woods bandwagon, crowds at the venues he’s played have seen records broken and TV and online viewer interest have producers beaming again. His fellow competitors, many of whom grew up idolising Woods in their youth, are equally excited with his return.
Woods is back as a ‘real deal’ again, that’s not in question. That he might win again, seems now to be close to a fait accompli. Whether that’s this season or the next, we’ll have to wait and see.
Right now, we’re all enjoying the ride for what it is.
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