Back in my playing days, I would always put a strong emphasis on the first tournament of the calendar year. I felt if I played well it could set the tone for the entire campaign. The opening event on the Mexican Mini-Tour each year was the Soledad de Graciano Sanchez Net Championship. Like DJ playing big ballparks or Tim Clark playing short, tight venues, net events tended to play to my strengths. I was typically listed in the system as a 6 or 7 handicap even though I could (and would) routinely play to a 4 or 5. This gave me a huge leg up on fellow tour pros who either had vanity handicaps or didn’t embrace the art of score entering manipulation. The fact that I made the cut in the GSNC more than once came as no surprise and typically would serve as my launching pad for the rest of the year.
Tiger Woods faces a similar challenge at The Farmers Insurance Open this week. He needs to get off to a good start to give himself some confidence to build off of and show the doubters and the haters that his first 15 years on tour wasn’t a total fluke. Unfortunately, he won’t have the same luxury that I had of getting strokes. He'll have to face the likes of DJ, Fowler and Sabbatini straight up. It won’t be easy. How will we know if we can take Tiger 2.0 seriously? Here are five signs to look for that he’s back……for real this time.
1. The first tee ball. If he hits driver off #1 Thursday morning and pounds a penetrating baby fade right down the gut and picks up his tee (without wincing) before the ball reaches it’s apex, look out, because we’re about to hop on a time machine headed for Y2K town. More importantly, if he does any semblance of a club twirl then they might as well call the tournament right there, because this event is over. (credit: @nolayingup for “saucy” references)
2. The fist pumps. We should be able to glean a lot from his fist pump/high five game. Now that Stevie Williams is mercifully off the bag, we can assume that Tiger will connect with his caddy Joe LaCava on basic high fives without looking like Ray Charles and Helen Keller playing patty cakes. The high fives are important, but the fist pumps could be even more revealing. We’ll know he's starting to feel it if we see any of his slower and more casual ‘overhand’ pumps. If we're lucky enough to spot an underhand ‘upper cut’ pump, then shit's about to get real. Finally, if we are fortunate enough to see the rarest of the rare, the vaunted 'double uppercut’ pump ala the 2008 U.S. Open then you might as well call Vegas and reserve the Prince Harry suite at the Cosmopolitan and put the escort service companies on DEFCON 2 because Tiger is stopping on his way back to Florida and has some celebrating to do.
3. The post round press conference. If we hear Tiger talking about his physical condition or overall health then we’ll know he's either A) still not healthy or B) willing to use his heath as a built-in excuse for his poor play. However, if we hear some of his old school media room responses that tell us absolutely nothing, like “I felt like my speed control was good today” or “Joey gave me some good numbers today” or “I was really able to feel the putter release today” then it’s game on.
4. Fan interaction. If we see Tiger smiling and interacting with fans (especially children), then he is content entering the 'ceremonial golfer’ phase of his career and is no longer interested in being a stone cold killer. However, if he generally ignores autograph seekers and is aloof to his fellow playing competitors in the locker room, then Nicklaus better gird his loins because 19 majors will be firmly back in play.
5. Chipping Issues. Speaking as someone currently experimenting with a left handed SquareStrike Wedge with a SuperStroke Fatso 5.0 grip, I know how challenging basic chip shots can be once negative thoughts creep in to your subconscious. We all remember that bizarre display Tiger put on at the ’15 Waste Management Phoenix Open when his short game looked like one of my students coming down the stretch for the ‘K' Flight club championship. If we see an early stress free up and down from a tight lie then we can breathe a collective sigh of relief. If not, Joe LaCava is gonna need to invest in one of these and it’s going to be a long season.