PALM HARBOR, Fla. – The Tiger Woods tsunami is rolling across golf again. You can’t stop it. Especially not with a certain tournament less than a month away in Augusta, Ga.
Tiger Woods is back, more or less, and if it turns out to be more (his 12th-place finish two weeks ago at the Honda Classic indicates it just might be), that possibility has golf abuzz.
Woods tees off at the Valspar Championship here at 12:46 this afternoon with Jordan Spieth and Henrik Stenson (tee times). The tournament, which realized a 27-percent jump in ticket sales after Woods announced that he would play, added 6,000 parking spots and another spectator bridge to accommodate this new iteration of Tigermania.
“I wonder how Jordan will feel if he shoots 64 and the first thing he gets asked about is Tiger shooting 67?” said Paul Azinger, a former PGA champion and Ryder Cup captain who is an analyst for Fox Sports.
The affable Spieth stopped by the Valspar media center Wednesday morning. Woods was part of the question or the answer in 14 of the 26 inquiries that Spieth fielded, many of which dealt with the Masters.
“Every generation has gotten to watch its superstars first-hand,” Azinger said. “Jack Nicklaus had longevity. So did Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino. Tom Kite had it. Hale Irwin. Vijay Singh. They’re all still out there.
“Tiger went out like a bottle rocket: pffffttt! And then, gone. Nobody saw it coming. If this generation gets a dose of him as a player, it’ll be good for them to know what is possible.
“I really admire Tiger. You can lose your swing practicing every day, and you would certainly lose your swing from what he’s been through the last few years,” said Azinger, alluding to two back surgeries that kept Woods out of golf for most of the past year. “For him to come back and be this good already is a sign of things to come."
Azinger was an interested spectator Wednesday morning from his home about an hour south, in Bradenton. Woods played 18 holes in the Valspar pro-am, and Azinger’s son-in-law was there, recording a few swings on video and forwarding them. Azinger took a peek before he went for a spin on his motorcycle that included a phone call from a writer and a breakfast stop at Wendy’s for a potato.
“His swing is dead on plane,” Azinger said. “When Tiger worked with Butch Harmon [from 1993 to 2004], you might’ve seen one or two little things to criticize, if you were really picky. After he left Hank Haney [in 2010], everybody in the industry saw six or seven things wrong. Now, you have to be pretty picky again. I think he’s back, in that regard. At one time, everybody wanted to swing like Tiger but Tiger.”
The driver, however, is the club that has bedeviled Woods in his first three starts of 2018. This week may be a good fit for him. Woods, who never has played this tournament, won’t need to hit many drivers at Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course. It’s a position golf course off the tee and, therefore, a second-shot golf course. The last part is often said of that famous track up north in Augusta, too.
Azinger is optimistic about Woods, a 79-time winner who last won on Tour in 2013, but also concerned about his driving issues.
“My son-in-law videoed him snap-hooking a drive on one hole,” Azinger said. “Tiger is so obsessed with clubhead speed. It’s not the amount of speed you have, but it’s having the speed in the right spot. Jackie Burke says, ‘You only get speed one time, and it’d better be the right time.’
“My son-in-low videoed Tiger and Rory McIlroy back-to-back. Rory’s swing looked like silk. All the speed was from impact and beyond. Tiger’s speed looked like it came from the top. As a player, you’ve just got to hold off a little at impact, then let it rip. It rips at the very end. The two swings I saw today, Tiger’s speed tends to be early.
“His speed is always in the right spot with his 9-iron. Some people jump at an 80-yard shot; some jump at a 40-yard shot; some jump on their putter. Tiger jumps on his driver. Until somebody can slow that down just a Mach, he’s going to drive it crooked.”
Woods said Wednesday that he is pleased with his progress. Because he played in windy conditions two weeks ago at the Honda Classic, he has been working on resetting his swing to hit the ball high again after playing so many knockdown shots.
He seems relaxed and confident, like a player who knows his game is in order. He plans a visit to Augusta National to reacquaint himself with the course.
“The favorites are guys who always do well there,” Woods said. “Phil [Mickelson], myself, Bubba [Watson] and a few others play well almost every year. We know how to play the course.
“I’m just ecstatic to have a chance to play again and complete. For a while, it didn’t look like I was ever going to be out here again. But here I am, playing again, and it’s a lot of fun.”
It’s early to make a call on how far back Woods will make it. His Honda showing was positive, but so far, his play is a small sampling.
“I looked up my stats, and I haven’t played enough rounds to be ranked in the stat categories,” Woods said. “That’s how my comeback has been. People are saying I’ve been erratic, but I’ve played only 10 rounds. That’s not many.”
This week, we’re not watching to see Woods break more records. We’re watching to see whether he can be relevant again. Betting against him was a losing proposition during most of the Tiger Era.
“We lived it, beginning to end,” Azinger said. “We all saw something we never thought we’d see, and then he was gone. Now he’s scratching his way back. It’s pretty impressive.”
Some level of Tigermania will return here this week. You can’t stop it.