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Tiger Woods still has a long way to go in comeback attempt

Golf's biggest star is trying to regain his form after two years of scandal, injury and mediocre play. He finishes in the middle of the pack at the Frys.com Open, his first tournament in two months.

October 09, 2011|By David Wharton
  • Tiger Woods lets his club fly on the follow through after hitting an errant tee shot Sunday during the final round of the Frys.com Open in San Martin, Calif.
Tiger Woods lets his club fly on the follow through after hitting an errant… (Robert Galbraith / Reuters )

Reporting from San Martin, Calif. -- It was not a horrible golf shot.

Standing in the rough beside a fairway that curved downhill at a tricky angle, Tiger Woods hit a high, looping ball that landed within 50 feet of the cup.

For most players, reaching the green from a tough spot would have been respectable. But Woods isn't like most players. A pained look crossed his face, and a voice from the gallery called out what everyone was thinking.

"Not like it used to be," the fan yelled.

The weight of expectation lies heavily on this iconic athlete who began his latest comeback attempt at an out-of-the-way tournament in Northern California over the weekend, hoping to rebound from two years of scandal, injury and some very mediocre play.

To hear him talk, nothing short of world domination will do. That means winning tournaments and rehabilitating a tarnished image, regaining his status as a celebrity endorser who commanded an estimated $110 million annually before corporations began dropping him left and right.

His performance at the Frys.com Open, while encouraging in many respects, suggested this quest will be neither quick nor easy.

Playing against a diluted field, at a time of year when most top golfers are home resting, Woods finished well back of the lead, adding fuel to the notion that his best days are behind him.

"I've heard that before," he said curtly. "It's not the first time."

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The tournament was an inconsistent affair for Woods.

One moment, he was sinking a long putt, raising his arms in triumph. The next, he was tomahawking his club into the ground after sending a tee shot into high grass.

The 35-year-old talked about feeling healthy for the first time in a long time, getting comfortable with his new swing for a few holes at a time, then slipping back into old, bad habits.

"I just get into these lulls," he said.

But not all of last week's developments took place on the course. Woods signed an endorsement contract with Rolex and there was speculation about another deal in the works with Fry's, a retail electronics chain.

That represents a big improvement from 2009 and 2010, when corporate sponsors abandoned him amid tabloid stories of infidelity, a reported visit to a clinic that treats sex addiction and, finally, divorce.

"Business is good," said Mark Steinberg, his agent. "We're close to finalizing an endorsement for Tiger's [golf] bag."

For all his troubles, no one else in golf generates as much buzz. When word spread that he was coming to Northern California, ticket sales quadrupled, tournament officials adding security and opening more parking lots.

Big galleries followed Woods all week, including a drunk fan who charged onto the course during the final round and threw a hot dog at him before being apprehended.

And because Woods had spent much of the last two months secluded in Florida, practicing on his home course, reporters came from across the nation to the CordeValle Golf Club, a scenic course cut into the hills above farmlands.

"It's good to have him here," said fellow golfer Rod Pampling, paired with Woods on Sunday. "He brings the people out, brings some interest."

Golf has not seen enough of its biggest star these last few years. In addition to a self-imposed exile to deal with personal problems, he has needed time off to recover from knee and tendon injuries. Prior to last weekend, he had played only 6½ rounds of competitive golf in six months and had fallen out of the top 50 world rankings for the first time in 15 years.

There has also been a much-discussed swing change with new coach Sean Foley, motivated in part by his physical ailments.

"I get what he's trying to do," said Frank Nobilo, a former player who works as a Golf Channel analyst. "You can't swing the same way after 35 as you did before; your body can't do the same things."

Still, the debate heats up whenever Woods tinkers with his game, as he did previously under Butch Harmon and Hank Haney. Rocco Mediate, who lost to Woods in a famous playoff at the 2008 U.S. Open, believes this latest change "is giving him a little trouble. I'd like to see a few different things."

Foley obviously disagrees. Watching the first two rounds in Northern California, he saw progress in his student's grip and posture. He believes that people are expecting too much, too soon.

"I know he's Tiger Woods," Foley said, "but it's about patience and perspective."

Woods must also adjust to a new caddie after a stormy breakup with Steve Williams, who carried his bag for more than a decade. Joe LaCava, a well-liked veteran, left fifth-ranked Dustin Johnson to take a chance on Woods' comeback.

Again, the shift will require time.

"He's going to have to get an understanding of what I like to hit, what clubs I like to favor, do I like to hit one hard or do I want to take something off of it," Woods said. "These are the things he's going to have to learn."

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