Long game: Woods gained patience, lost pounds during his absence

BY foxsports • December 7, 2014

WINDERMERE, Fla. -- There was a time when a performance like this would have left Tiger Woods in an exceedingly grumpy mood.

He’s been known to throw a few tantrums in his time and more than once has tied a recalcitrant putter or wedge behind his golf cart and dragged it around as punishment for its sins. (Imagine how sadistic he’d have gotten with this new wedge after it chunked so many chips at Isleworth?)

But on Sunday the soon-to-be 39-year-old didn’t beat anyone at the Hero World Challenge yet still hung around to shoot the breeze with the ink-stained wretches of the press – take that, Dan Jenkins! – before going to the television tower.

Yes, Tiger Woods went to the NBC booth to yuk it up.

No, unfortunately, Johnny Miller doesn’t work this tournament, or it would have been the closest NBC has come to must-see TV since “Seinfeld.”

Woods obviously has mellowed. Fatherhood and age tend to do that to us all. Certainly, it’s a good thing for him as a person. But will he be the same golfer as a friendlier cat?

Demeanor is not the only difference as Woods tries to reclaim what was once his. He will be armed with the swing he had as a junior.

There was some chuckling among the aforementioned ink-stained wretches on this because they tend to have long memories and recall that Woods went to Butch Harmon after winning the 1997 Masters by 12 shots to fix that junior swing because it was too difficult to control distances.

And, indeed, last year he said he couldn’t go back even to the swing Butch taught him – far more controlled and less violent than his junior swing – because his body couldn’t do it any longer.

And yet, here we are, back to the future, and not a word about how this aggressive move will impact his surgically reconstructed left knee. But maybe that’s what he’s willing to sacrifice?

I knew he was serious about this fifth swing change because he’s seriously toned down his addiction to the gym. Woods told me he’d lost five pounds since we saw him in August.

“Try 15,” I replied.

He laughed and said it was “all fat.”

Woods is deliberately getting skinnier in order to find the speed that he’s lost by bulking up over the past five years.

He may be stubborn, but he eventually does come around. And although he finished 26 shots behind Jordan Spieth, if the week were judged solely by the way he swung the golf club, it was more a success than failure.

There was none of the awkwardness – or constant rehearsal swings – he had in the four years with Sean Foley.

He looked … natural?

And this is important because, at his best, Woods was more artist – or magician – than geometrist.

“It looks like he’s swinging at it a lot more aggressively, freer,” said Steve Stricker, who played alongside Woods on Sunday.

Stricker, probably the player Woods is closest to on the PGA Tour – and one whose opinion he most values – welcomed the change.

“It looks like he’s always trying to steer it in play the last five, six, seven years, whatever,” he said.

“Today, it looked like he really let it go and he trusted it for the most part.”

Of course, there’s a long way to go. He still has a tendency to aim left and hit big left-to-right curves, but the absence of endless practice swings was refreshing.

“I’ve got my speed back,” Woods said. “Look how far I’m hitting it again. That’s nice.

“I just obviously have to clean up my short game. That still needs a lot of work.”

And the prize for Understatement of the Week goes to …

Woods added two more chunked chips to his tally on Sunday – he led the field, comfortably, with nine – and they both came on the same hole.

He was greenside on the par-5 13th in two shots and walked away with a triple bogey. That’s some feat for a player with his name stitched into his golf bag.

Chunk, chunk, half bladed the next one so it got on the green, then from there he took three putts.

Stricker called it an “escapade."

Woods’ attempt to describe his chipping woes – they’re not yet the yips, but if he’s not careful, they might well be – required some mental gymnastics.

“It’s a different release pattern, so my chipping is off; my putting is a touch off,” he said.

“A different release point … (means) the short game is off, but my long game is better.”

What he’s trying to say is that he’s using the same steep motion he used under Foley but that he’s tilting back away on the downswing.

“If I put my backswing in the same position that I used to have it in and then make this new move, with this release pattern, I’m going to hit it fat every time,” he said.

What’s really amazing – beyond his obsession with the Foley term “release pattern” – is that Woods knows what he’s doing yet can’t stop doing it. Which brings us to the biggest of all questions.

Even assuming Woods masters this swing and in a few months is back to his best, what does that guarantee?

Spieth shot 26-under-par to win here. Woods hasn’t ever gone that low. Rory McIlroy has won two majors in a row and will be going for his third at Augusta.

The competition isn’t getting any softer.

Even if Woods gets his groove back, there’s no guarantee he’ll be the Tiger of old.