Tiger Woods rolled into Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, for the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Having won the tournament eight times, he has a high level of comfort with the course and he’ll need it. Sitting at No.215 with just 45 FedExCup points, he needs the 550 points that comes with a win here. That would give him 595 points and launch him well inside the top 125 and into the playoffs (Charlie Beljan is holding down the 125th spot with 403 points). He has these next three tournaments to get there: Firestone, the PGA Championship and the Wyndham in Greensboro.
The other issue lurking in the background of this week’s play is a spot on the Ryder Cup Team. He’s currently 70th on the points list with no way to earn enough points in the next two tournaments to get one of the 9 automatic berths. He’s going to have to count on one of the 3 Captain’s picks, so that means impressing Captain Tom Watson that he is back in form by the end of the PGA Championship.
So as you read Tiger’s comments, keep in mind that all of this is roiling in the background.
“I’m excited to be back. I’ve had some pretty good memories here. I’ve had some pretty good rounds and certainly some great moments on this property. Any time I come back here, it’s always a good solid feeling, and I’m looking forward to this week.”
So given this tremendous success at Firestone and love of the course, this would be a perfect litmus test for the condition of his game, right?
“Not necessarily, because I’ve come into this event not playing great and I’ve come into this event playing great, but it’s one of those golf courses I always feel comfortable.”
“The neat thing is there are certain venues, whether it’s here or Torrey or Bay Hill, I somehow see the sights, I see the sight lines. Even though the golf course, like some of the courses like Torrey or Bay Hill have changed greens over the year, this place hasn’t. I still feel comfortable seeing the sight lines and playing the venue.”
“But this golf course is just amazing. It’s very forward. It’s right in front of you. And there are some years where it is just impossible to hit these fairways. They’re so hard and so fast. And other years, everything plugs, and it plays long, and you’ve got to make a bunch of birdies.”
“But I think that this venue — it goes to show you that you don’t need elephant burial grounds out there to make a golf course fair, difficult, and enjoyable.”
Last year, Tiger shot a 61 in the second round to take a 7-shot lead that he never relinquished. So what would it take to do that again?
“That was a pretty nice day. I got off to a great start, had a nice little run there in the middle part of the round, and had a chance to shoot 59 with about three holes to go. I had my opportunities.”
“I made a hell of a par on the last hole. I putted from off the back edge of the green. So it was a nice way to basically get myself into the weekend. I really played well on the weekend as well (68, 70; it’s a hard course).”
“To try and win the ninth this week is — there’s no secret formula. It’s just go out and play well. This golf course is right in front of you. There’s no hidden secrets out here. You’ve just got to go out there and play well.”
So here he sits in the middle of circumstances created by his back injury and rehab. Does he feel any extra pressure to make the Playoffs? It wouldn’t be the first time that injuries kept him out of the year-end race:
“Unfortunately, I’ve been in this situation before. Maybe three years ago, I believe, when the PGA was at Atlanta Athletic Club. I had my Achilles injury, and I didn’t play all summer, and I was in a similar position coming into these last few weeks, having to play well to get myself into the playoffs.”
“At that time, I didn’t. So hopefully, this go around I’ll be a little bit better”
The games of Tour players are finally tuned affairs. There is a level of consciousness in their shots that is an amalgam of technique, muscle memory, flat-line emotions and projected awareness of the shot and the target. So what does he think he has to work on at this point?
“Yeah, everything. Everything needed to get a little bit better. Just got to get more efficient at what I’m doing.”
“My good shots are still really good. My bad shots need to be in positions where I know I should miss the golf ball instead of places where I have been missing it.”
“There’s, obviously, short sides and fat sides and making sure I miss the ball on the correct side, depends on where the flag is. And that’s something that I haven’t done as consistently, as well as I’d like to.”
But he sees it for what it is and has just set about doing the work:
“I didn’t really play a lot. When I went into Congressional, I’d only played a couple of rounds [far less than what he implied going into Congressional]. I’d just gotten the okay to go ahead and do that.”
“Since I was given the okay, I thought I could go ahead and push and play in a tournament, which I did. Unfortunately, I didn’t do very well.”
“From there, I started to ramp up my playing and obviously my practicing. I just need to keep progressing. This is only my third tournament back from a back surgery. So that’s something that I’ve had to try and keep in mind because I’ve been in these situations before with my previous surgeries. It takes a little bit of time.”
Back injuries that involved impinged nerves are totally debilitating. They bring you to your knees and make you swing in a protective ball. Get to that point and you are done. It’s time to find a good doctor or chiropractor, get the treatment and start the rehab.
“Well, there’s no comparison between a knee and a back. The knee is so much easier to deal with and rehab from than coming back from a back.”
“I’ve had Achilles injuries, obviously knee surgeries, but this thing is just way different. It’s way more debilitating than I thought.”
“The people that I’ve talked to that have had the same procedure, how long it takes them to come back. And most of the people I talked to who have had the procedure have no idea how I’m even back here playing. They just can’t understand that.”
“Also, again, when you have great protocols and you do everything perfectly, everything fell into place. I was able to get back. But now it’s just continuing, and I still need to get much stronger than I am now, and I still need to get much more explosive than I am now. That’s just time.”
He is nothing if not determined. When he was at the front end of his surgery, he didn’t really have an idea of how long it would take him to get back except that he knew that the British Open was possible. He found out what a reasonable schedule was, what he had to do, and then he just did it:
“The goal was to get back for the British Open. The goal was to get back where I was playing golf the week before the British and then assess whether or not I could play in the British or not.”
“That was the goal once we saw what the problems were in my back, and then after the procedure was done, we all sat down and said, okay, that’s a realistic timetable.”
“But then I’ve always healed fast. So diet’s been perfect. The treatments and just having the soft tissue work every day. It’s mundane. It’s monotonous, but I had to do it if I wanted to get back and play again.”
“I wanted to give myself the best opportunity to play at the British Open, and I did, and I came back even sooner than that. I’m only six rounds into this.”
And it was good that he made it back for those two rounds at Congressional — where he missed the cut — because he didn’t have to go into the Open blind. He had a better sense of what his new physical parameters were:
“I think once I got through Congressional, I knew what I could and couldn’t do. As I said, that was a big turning point for me.”
“My comeback was to be able to play those two rounds before I headed over to The Open Championship. Going back over to The Open Championship, I knew exactly what I could and couldn’t do.”
“Congressional was a high point. Even though I missed the cut miserably, but the fact I was back playing again after what I’d just been through was big for me.”
Tiger will be remembered for setting lofty goals and then achieving them. That’s evident in these comments about how far behind he is in the Ryder Cup points. He knows that if he wins these next two big tournaments, he’s probably in on a pick and the Playoffs are a lock:
“Well, I would like to win these two events and not have to worry about anything. That’s the plan. That’s the mindset. That’s the focus.”
“We’ll see how it falls after these few weeks. Other than that, I really — I’m so far out of it right now that I need to play well to get myself there where I can get myself into the Playoffs and ultimately, hopefully, play all four weeks.”
And still he keeps his eye on his career goal of beating Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. Has the importance of that been diminished in any way?
“Its importance, no, but I’ll tell you what, it’s a hell of a lot closer now than I was in ’97. These 14 weren’t easy.”
“Yeah, that was — I’ve passed a lot of people on the way to get to this point. You look at the who’s who and the history of the game and the fact there’s only one person ahead of me, it’s not too bad.”