Michaux: Tiger's rise has changed the conversation
ORLANDO, Fla. — Tiger Woods was feeling a little weirdly stressed after placing himself once again on the leaderboard with an opening 68 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Thursday.
As the phrase “raised expectations” came up, Woods pushed back with a little perspective.
“You guys are asking different questions than you did when I first came back and that wasn’t that long ago – that’s two months ago,” he said. “The narrative has completely flipped from how you guys ask me questions and I just wanted to remind you guys that it wasn’t that long ago that you were asking a different set of questions and that you need to enjoy it. No, I enjoy just playing again after what I’ve been through. Playing feels good.”
Only three months ago, Woods started last December as the 1,199th ranked golfer in the world. The questions he got regarded whether he could swing a golf club pain free or compete in consecutive weeks or even make a cut again on the PGA Tour.
Now he’s in contention for the third time in four weeks and has climbed all the way up to the betting favorite for the Masters Tournament next month.
The narrative has changed, all right. But it has everything to do with what he’s doing and not the questions the media is asking. He’s the one who has literally mentioned Augusta or the Masters or April every single week he’s played without any prompting whatsoever.
So he shouldn’t be too taken aback that the oddsmakers have kept shortening his odds with every step he makes up the world rankings.
“A lot of gamble-holics out there,” he said when told he’s now the betting favorite.
Woods is once again the talk of the golfing world because the strength and rapid ascent of his comeback from more than a year off warrants it. A week ago in Tampa, his runner-up finish generated the largest television ratings of any non-major since the 2013 Players Championship won by Woods. The fervor outside the ropes when he plays is as big as ever.
The only folks seemingly not surprised by what Woods is doing are the players competing against him.
“I’m not shocked – it’s Tiger Woods,” said Patrick Reed, who sits tied near the top with Woods for the second consecutive week. “I played with him Monday for nine holes (in December) and he hit the ball so well there and it looked so effortless and fluid that I didn’t see any pain. It looked like he was able to do everything he needed to do and so from that point he just needed to get some reps. Well the way you’re going to get reps is by playing golf tournaments or practicing as much at home, you could definitely tell he’s been able to put in the work and that’s what he’s doing.”
Woods’ back has held up to the strain of playing four events in five weeks, and as the reps have risen so has his confidence. He’s throwing out that ridiculous “feels” word again.
“I’ve been away from it for so long that when I first came back it was just a matter of just getting my feel for tournament golf again,” he said. “I think I have. I feel like I’m not really thinking as much around the golf course, I can just see and feel it and go and that’s just because I got my feels back again.”
He’s also got his flair for the dramatic back. Last Sunday he drained a 45-foot putt on the next-to-last hole to give himself a chance to force a playoff. Thursday he poured in a 71-footer on his 16th hole to briefly hold the lead all by himself. He smiled both times, like even he couldn’t believe what was happening.
That capped a clutch comeback with three birdies in four holes after making a gruesome double bogey on his 12th hole of the day, finding out-of-bounds that Bay Hill members didn’t even know existed.
This week marks his final tune-up before the Masters. Win or lose, it’s too late to make the field for next week’s WGC Match Play. So he’d like to make one last big impression before he disappears for two weeks to hone his game for Augusta.
“I got three more days here and hopefully cap it off with a nice win,” he said.
To say Woods is comfortable at Bay Hill is an understatement. In 2013, he won here for the eighth time before all of his back issues started flaring up at the end of that season.
But it will be far from easy finishing on top this week. The leaderboard is already stacked with so much quality you could confuse it with a major. Three guys in front of him – Henrik Stenson, Rory McIlroy and Jimmy Walker – all own major wins. So does the crowd right behind him with the likes of Justin Rose, Zach Johnson, Graeme McDowell and Bubba Watson.
The only way Woods is going to flip the narrative away from his rising expectations is to start wincing or missing cuts.
“Well that’s all positive, all well and good,” he pleaded of the rapidly evolving dialogue regarding his progress. “But just take that different perspective over it, that’s all I’m asking.”
It’s way too late to tap the brakes on that. It’s nice that he says he’s just enjoying himself now, but Vegas is all in.