A Good Start

February 26, 2009 |

After eight months away, the world’s best golfer was back at work. Tiger Woods, recovered from knee surgery, did what he does best yesterday. And, that of course is play golf.

Tiger took on Aussie Brendan Jones in his first round matchup at the WGC Match Play Championship, and after two holes, it looked like he would blow Jones away with a birdie-eagle start. Watching it unfold, well let’s just say those first two holes could not have been scripted any better.

After two holes, even the announcers felt sorry for Jones. And from my seat at home, I did too. After all, this is a guy who had never been in this kind of spot before. Playing a one-on-one match with Tiger Woods would bring almost every golfer on the planet to their knees. And Jones seemed to be no different than many of the others who had to face Woods in a one-on-one setting.

But, a funny thing happened on the way to a Woods blowout (in case you’re scoring at home he’s now 32-6 in WGC match play). It wasn’t a chink in the armor. It wasn’t that Jones started to play at a level he had never played at before. It was rust.

No, Tiger did not play badly. Not at all. But, even the world’s best golfer has to shake off the rust after eight months away from the game he has dedicated his life to. Yes, even Tiger wasn’t immune. Despite all the hard work he put in during his rehab, there was rust to shake off. (Before yesterday, he had only walked a full eighteen holes one time since his knee surgery).

Instead of building on the two-hole lead he had, Tiger was unable to pull away. In fact, when Jones won the seventh hole to cut Woods’ lead in half, I wondered whether Tiger would be in for a longer workday than even he had anticipated.

But, Tiger answered Jones’ challenge, immediately regaining his two-hole advantage on #8 with a birdie on the par-five (he’s always been dominant on those par-five’s) . Tiger would double that lead after his second eagle of the day (on yet another par-five with an incredible putt) and would go on to close Jones out 3 and 2.

Was Tiger good yesterday? Yes he was. Was it vintage Tiger? Nope. Was he dominant? No he was not. But he wasn’t going for dominant. Not in his first competitive round back since gutting out that win at Torrey Pines over Rocco Mediate at the U.S. Open. He is looking to work his way back into top form by the time The Master’s comes around.

Yes, The Masters. You see, as much as Tiger likes to win tournaments, he LOVES to win Majors. There’s a big difference between winning a WGC Match Play tournament and The Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA Championship. Tiger would like nothing better than to win another Green Jacket when he comes to Augusta in April. That would – in his mind – put the exclamation point on his comeback.

You see, for Tiger, it’s all about history now, nothing else. He’s got fourteen career majors, four behind the great Jack Nicklaus. It’s a record he wants very badly. Would any of us be shocked if he won more than one major this year? I wouldn’t be.

I found it funny that it only took one hole for the announcers on The Golf Channel were saying stuff like ‘he’s back’ or ‘it’s like he never left.’ I doubt Tiger would have agreed with that assessment. I think he would probably say he’s not ‘back’ until he wins another major.

It is important to remember that Woods only won his first round match yesterday. Even though it isn’t likely, there’s a chance that Tiger could lose to Tim Clark when those two play their second round match.

And if he does beat Clark, there will still be work left to do.

What I’m saying is let’s not get too crazy over what we saw yesterday. Let’s be honest about what we watched. It was a good start. It wasn’t an incredible round of golf. It doesn’t approach the kind of golf Tiger played when he won the U.S. and British Opens in 2000 by lapping the field.

But, it was a good start. A good finish would be putting on another Green Jacket in Augusta, or winning another U.S. Open, or having his name engraved on the Claret Jug yet again, or winning another PGA Championship.

Because, for Woods, like Jack Nicklaus, or Arnold Palmer, or any of the other legends, while they like winning any tournament, winning at a major has a whole different feeling. Tiger didn’t get that feeling yesterday.

But, it was a good start.