You didn’t have to look very hard to find a festival of hot takes predicting what Tiger Woods would look like at his Hero World Challenge comeback. Now that he actually hit four days worth of real shots, the speculation can turn to analysis.
Woods’ speed with the driver was a revelation – as was his freedom and comfort with a club that had long been an issue. Woods’ ball speed hung out about 180 miles per hour off the driver, which would put him solidly in the top-20 among his tour peers – and plenty long enough to get out of the “old man” purgatory he jokingly put himself in during his last comeback. He might not be the longest player on the US PGA Tour anymore, but he’s definitely no powder puff.
For leading teacher Bill Harmon, the show Woods put on last week wasn’t a new release as much as it was a welcome re-issue of a greatest-hits compilation.
“I thought his swing with the driver had some characteristics of his swing in 2000 – mostly the higher left arm position at the top,” says Harmon, who has known Woods for decades since Woods started working with Harmon’s brother, Butch. “He looked like he had more space to swing his arms on the forward swing. It may have helped him to have to ‘start over’. I wonder in his time off if he reviewed all the work he’d done on his swing over the years and decided to go back to some things he’d had the most success with.”
If watching what kind of speed Woods could muster with a fused back was at the top of the marquee in the Bahamas, the state of his short game was very close behind. Woods’ 2015 comeback was derailed by a series of gruesome pitch shots from basic lies – and a dumped greenside shot early in his first round last Thursday sent a wave of murmurs across Twitter.
Despite that and a few other shaky miscues, top short-game teacher Todd Sones says Woods’ performance around the greens was encouraging.
“He hit a few bad ones, but he also hit a lot of great ones,” says Sones, who runs the Impact Golf scoring schools in Vernon Hills, Illinois. “The shot he hit off the green on Friday was perfect. The club slid off the tightest lie you could have.”
When Woods made a mistake, it tended to have a common theme, Sones says. “Every time he messed up, the club dug,” Sones says. “Is that a yip? I don’t think so. He was off with his fundamentals those few times. I saw his handle out-racing the clubhead – he had too much grip speed, so the club didn’t sole out properly. He had hit enough of those bad that it creates some fear.”
The simplest prescription to beat that fear? The right information, Sones says. If you tend to dig the leading edge in behind the ball on basic short-game shots, narrow your stance and practise taking the club back halfway and coming to a complete stop. Then, without manipulating your hands to change the plane of your swing or making a big lateral shift, let the clubhead swing down to the ball. If it makes contact behind the ball, it usually means you’re pulling the club behind you too much on the backswing.
“Tiger is an incredible student of the game, and it should be easy with the right technique for him to be brilliant again around the green,” Sones says. “The way he hit the ball last week, I’d say he put a lot of his time leading up to the tournament into his full swing – and he got a benefit from it, obviously. I’m excited to see what comes next, as he continues to work on all parts of his game. The sky’s the limit.”
Harmon was equally optimistic, saying the week of good feels Woods takes from seeing dozens of great shots – hit without pain – lays down a solid foundation for the upcoming season. “If your swing doesn’t feel right, I don’t know how you feel confident,” says Harmon, who teaches at Toscana Country Club in Indian Wells, California. “If was Tiger or I was in his camp, I’d be very encouraged.”