Cu­rios­ity abounds as Tiger set for re­turn

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - SPORTS - By Doug Fer­gu­son

Tiger Woods has gone through two back surg­eries since he last played a golf tour­na­ment 15 months ago.

He had an­other back surgery that knocked him out of the Masters for the first time in 2014.

He had four knee surg­eries be­fore that.

None of that mat­ters to Ernie Els when Woods re­turns to com­pe­ti­tion this week.

Els is more cu­ri­ous about what’s go­ing on in his head.

“The tal­ent’s there. It’s been proven. It doesn’t go away,” Els said. “It’s what you think of your­self. It’s what you think where you are. We look at this great player, but he’s not see­ing the same stuff in his own mind. A lot of us are like that. When you’ve achieved as much as he has ... it’s a shock to the sys­tem not to play as good as you have been. To look at other

peo­ple look­ing at you like, ‘Hey, you’re not the same guy,’ that’s hard to take.”

Els, per­haps more than any other player, has a deep golf­ing con­nec­tion with Woods.

He was the player Woods sought out 20 years ago at Royal Lytham & St. Annes when de­cid­ing whether to turn pro. They had so many mean­ing­ful bat­tles, and Woods al­most al­ways got the bet­ter of him. Els was runner-up to Woods seven times, the most of any player.

Els de­signed the Al­bany golf course where Woods comes back from the long­est lay­off of his ca­reer. He plans to be in the Ba­hamas, and he is as eager as any­one else to see how a guy who won 79 times on the PGA Tour, in­clud­ing 14 ma­jors, stacks up against a gen­er­a­tion that grew up in awe of how Woods played golf.

The Hero World Chal­lenge is a hol­i­day tour­na­ment with an 18-man

field and no cut. Even so, it com­mands as much at­ten­tion as any tour­na­ment this year. Woods has been a star at­trac­tion his en­tire ca­reer, and the ap­petite is even stronger af­ter an ab­sence that dates to Aug. 23, 2015.

“I can’t wait to watch, ei­ther, just to see him play,” Ry­der Cup cap­tain Davis Love III said. “The last time I saw him play, I won. It’s hard to be­lieve it’s been that long. I’ve seen his swing. I’ve seen him on video. He’s sent me clips, and I’ve heard the de­scrip­tion of how he feels. I’m ex­cited to see him play.”

“You’ve got to start some­where,” he added. “And I want to see the start.”

Woods al­ready has had one false start. He signed up to play the Safe­way Open, only to pull out three days later be­cause he said he felt “vul­ner­a­ble.” That fol­lowed a week as as­sis­tant cap­tain at the Ry­der Cup, and cram­ming in prac­tice the week be­fore with re­sults that made him want to wait.

Love won the Wyn­d­ham Cham­pi­onship last year in Au­gust at age 51, and

it could eas­ily have served as a model for Woods — a power player no longer in his prime, not among the big­gest hit­ters any­more, but with enough ex­pe­ri­ence and tal­ent to find a way to score and to win.

“It has to mo­ti­vate him that Vi­jay Singh is last­ing un­til 53, that Ernie is still com­pet­i­tive, that Davis is still com­pet­i­tive,” Love said. “He knows Jack Nick­laus won the Masters in 1986 play­ing part-time. He knows what ev­ery­body has done. I know he’s work­ing hard not to come back and be av­er­age. He wants to come back and win again.”

That might be ex­pect­ing too much, way too soon.

Woods hasn’t won a tour­na­ment since his sev­en­shot vic­tory in the Bridge­stone In­vi­ta­tional in 2013, the year he won five times and was PGA Tour player of the year. He hasn’t had a se­ri­ous chance at win­ning since his tour­na­ment three years ago when it was at Sher­wood Coun­try Club. Zach John­son holed a wedge from the drop zone to force a play­off, and won when Woods missed a 5-foot putt in the play­off.

No other player has ever faced so much scru­tiny, es­pe­cially now.

“I won’t be able to turn the TV on, or the ra­dio on, or look at my phone with­out know­ing what he shot,” Jim Furyk said. “The ex­pec­ta­tions are so high . ... Ev­ery pitch shot, ev­ery putt, ev­ery 3-footer, it’s not un­der public scru­tiny like he has. I guess you live by the sword, die by the sword. That’s why he’s Tiger Woods. It’s a tough sit­u­a­tion.”

Woods said his health had noth­ing to do with pulling out of the Safe­way Open, and Els be­lieves him. He says Woods is in bet­ter shape than some play­ers in their 20s. Then again, he has ac­cu­mu­lated plenty of emo­tional bag­gage over the last sev­eral years, on and off the golf course.

“They phys­i­cal side is not an is­sue. It’s the other side that’s an is­sue, what­ever is block­ing him,” Els said. “But you’ve got to get on the horse. You can’t be stand­ing on the side­lines. You’ve got to get out there. ... Hope­fully, he plays well, re­ally, for his own good­ness, his own sake, his own men­tal sake.”

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