BETHESDA — Like the superstar athletes who befriended and mentored him early in his career as he watched them grow old, Tiger Woods keeps staring at his own golfing mortality.
Coming off a three-month layoff following back surgery, Woods returns to the PGA Tour this week for the Quicken Loans National at Congressional Country Club with a bit of a different game than the one he has played for the past 18 years as a pro.
“Just like M.J., I’ve got the fadeaway,” Woods said, referring to one of his longtime confidants, Michael Jordan.
But like Jordan and Ken Griffey Jr., the 38-year-old Woods is not yet ready to accept the fact that he can’t compete with a generation of players he helped inspire.
The surgery has only tempered his expectations a little, if at all.
“Expectations don’t change,” Woods said during a packed news conference Tuesday. “[Winning is] the ultimate goal. It’s just that it’s going to be a little harder this time. I just haven’t had the amount of prep and reps that I would like, but I’m good enough to play and I’m going to give it a go.”
What he called “quite a little tedious process” of rehabilitation began within days after his surgery, when Woods putted at his home in Florida and filled the cups with sand so he wouldn’t have to bend down to pick up the ball.
That eventually led to Woods chipping and pitching after a couple of months. It wasn’t until two weeks ago that Woods said he started hitting his driver, playing a few holes at a time, and “tried not to embarrass myself.”
Asked what he shot the first time he played, Woods joked, “I broke 50 for nine [holes], first time, just like I did when I was 3. So I’m sneaking up on it. My prime’s coming up.”
Woods said that his return this week was not a coincidence, coming at a tournament that helps raise money for his foundation and learning centers.
“We all thought that the British Open would be my first event back,” said Woods, who plans on playing at Royal Liverpool in a few weeks. “But I healed fast.”
Woods said that he is “pain-free” for the first time in two years, but there is still a bit of rust, adding that he “is not to the level that I’m used to being that explosive. That’s going to come in time.” Woods said that he has been told that the risk for reinjuring his back “was minimal.”
Though much younger, Jason Day knows what Woods endured mentally while he was sitting out. The 26-year-old Australian missed nearly two months with a thumb injury after the Masters.
“You’re sitting there going, ‘When is my thumb going to get better, would this be a career-ending injury?’” said Day, who has yet to be a factor in the three tournaments he has played since coming back.
“I just didn’t know. Obviously when you’re sitting there by yourself on the couch watching the guys play golf on Sunday, things like that go through your head.”
Woods has been through this before, taking off eight months after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery as well as allowing time for the broken leg he played with in winning the 2008 U.S. Open — the last of his 14 major championships — to heal.
He also took off three months for an Achilles injury in 2011.
Because of what was described as an nerve impingement in his back, Woods said, “I wasn’t able to function. I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t do normal activities.
“When I blew out my knee and even had my Achilles problems, I could still do things. This was different. Anyone that’s had any kind of nerve impingement, it’s no joke. That part was relieved as soon as I got out of surgery. That pain I was feeling down my leg was gone.”
Woods said that he and swing coach Sean Foley have made a “few tweaks here and there but nothing major” with his swing post surgery. It took a while for his length to come back, joking that close friend and Champions Tour player John Cook was hitting it further than Woods after returning from a broken back.
“I’m out there pumping 8-irons 135 yards and that’s all I had; that [being outdistanced by Cook] was frustrating there for a little while,” Woods said.”But I have turned things around and I’ve got my numbers back. This week, especially, since it’s going to be warm all week, I won’t have any problems staying loose.”
Just as Jordan went to his fadeaway more than trying to dunk over the opposition, just as Griffey stopped running into outfield walls in order to make game-saving catches, Woods knows he’s not going to overpower golf courses or intimidate the competition by outdriving everyone not named John Daly.
“I feel old,” Woods said with a smile. “The Chinese kid who qualified for the Masters last year, he was born after I won the tournament. That’s just not cool, you know. That’s what’s coming, the next generation. They are taller, bigger, they are more physical, just like in all sports across the board.
“You look at these kids in college…they are just big guys and they can move it [the ball] out there. The difference is as you age and as I’ve aged, I can’t play the way I used to. I was No. 2 in driving distance for a number of years. Now if you average over 300 yards, I don’t know if you’re in the top 10.”
One advantage Woods has now is patience.
Having two young children has helped in that regard.
“I think with that old adage, with age comes wisdom, and I have certainly become much more patient,” Woods said. “It has carried over into my golf game on the course as well as of. I just remember all the early years on tour when I used to run 30 miles a week and just push it, no matter how hurt I was.
“I was winning, but I didn’t realize how much damage I was doing to my body at the time. I have to now pick my spots when I can and can’t push. Before, when you’re young, I just pushed all the time. But now I’ve got to listen to my body, listen to my therapist and get treatment.”
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