Woods finished fourth at the Quail Hollow Championship in North Carolina, otherwise known as the tournament with no title sponsorship name. It was his Woods' sixth event since the eight-month layoff to accommodate knee surgery and it served as a tuneup for The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass.
So what do we know about the reconstructed Woods? Did his performance in the season's first major suggest he can win the season's fifth major? Is he good as new, worse for wear, better than ever?
The obvious and normal expectations would be to have no immediate expectations for a player coming off such a surgery. Remember, it took Ernie Els a significant amount of time before he felt close to 100 percent after having similar knee surgery in 2005. Els has won one PGA Tour event since the surgey. He has been competitive in some majors, but he remains at three major championships in his career.
But Woods has distorted the picture. No sooner do you consider his delicate condition than he wins the Arnold Palmer Invitational in his third time out of the box. Thus, when he arrives at Augusta National earlier this month, he arrives as a prohibitive favorite, the fourth operation on the knee notwithstanding, illogical as it may seem.
Sure enough, Woods was on the Butler Cabin trail on Sunday at the Masters. He played in the “Dream Team” pairing with Phil Mickelson and provided the Jolly Green Tournament with a centerfold story. But he did not win in his first major since the epic U.S. Open championship at Torrey Pines. He made a charge, got to within striking distance, then short-circuited with bogeys at 17 and 18.
By normal standards, a tie for sixth in the first major out represents a strong, commendable performance. But this is Tiger, who has four green jackets, and the distorted view points out that he has now gone four years without winning at Augusta, the longest drought of his professional career.
Continuing the nitpicking, we note Woods' swing seems to have changed a bit. He still drives hard into that straight left knee, but with less of a twist. His ball flight appears to have become more right to left, more prone to a hook. In the end, his nemesis at Augusta was an old sore — the wayward driver. With the tournament ripe for the taking, Woods pulled out the big bat at both 17 and 18 and fouled off both pitches.
Though he has been able to win other majors in recent years by featuring fairway woods and 2-irons off the tee, he is prodded into a more muscular approach by elongated Augusta National. Incomparable recovery skills and short-game touch produced a win at Bay Hill. At the same time, Bay Hill and Augusta are second nature to Woods, courses where he always excels.
But as we look ahead, it seems the game's No. 1 still has some ball-striking rust to shake loose, mojo to recapture, layoff demons with which to deal. Quail Hollow will be a good test, as will The Players.
Woods has won at Sawgrass only once, in 2001. He has not had a top-10 there in his last six starts. Under normal circumstances, its perfectly reasonable to suggest Woods is still searching for his “A” game. But under distorted circumstances, under his standards, he doesn't have to have it to win.
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