Swing changes might be key to new Tiger

February, 19, 2009

Always a repository for quiet restraint and little hyperbole, the promotional ads on television are already referring to Tiger Woods' 2009 season debut at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship as "the most anticipated return in the history of golf."

Personally, I was pretty pumped for the 1950 Los Angeles Open, when Ben Hogan returned 11 months after a near-fatal car accident only to lose to Sam Snead in a playoff, but I understand the sentiment behind the promos.

When Woods competes, golf fans take notice. When he competes for the first time in eight months after winning the U.S. Open in a sudden-death playoff during which he limped and grimaced and winced his way around Torrey Pines for 91 holes, followed days later by season-ending knee surgery on a torn ACL in his left knee, everyone takes notice.

With such a frenzied fervor surrounding Tiger's return comes questions, and with those questions come doubt -- from the media, from fans, perhaps even from fellow players, though any would be reluctant to admit as much.

That even extends to Woods himself. During a teleconference Friday, Woods admitted a slight diffidence when asked about his major concerns entering the Match Play.

"Well, I think it's whether or not my game's sharp," said Woods, who was has won three of the previous six editions of this event. "It's one thing to do it in a practice environment at home against some buddies for a little bit of cash. But it's a totally different deal to do it in a PGA Tour event against the best players in the world. That's something that I'm looking forward to the challenge, and really excited about getting on out there and experiencing that excitement again."

Suffice it to say, there hasn't been much excitement on the home course at Isleworth, which hardly satisfies any thirst for competition. That hasn't stopped Woods from going at it nonstop ever since his doctors gave him the go-ahead.

"I'm sure I played every day," he said. "Doesn't mean I'm playing 18 holes every day, but I'm playing every day, playing holes. So there is a practice session, yes, in there -- each and every day. And also holes being played to make sure that the things that I practice are working on the golf course and in that environment. Everything's felt pretty good."

Hmmm ... maybe there isn't much reticence after all.

All of which leads us to wonder: Will Tiger Woods still be, you know, Tiger Woods? As in, the guy with 65 career victories, 14 majors and a stranglehold on the world's No. 1 ranking -- even when he's not competing.

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The answer may lie in his swing, which should look similar to the untrained eye, but could exude a few slight differences when shown in a slow-mo split screen alongside his previous move.

"I've been trying to make changes in my golf swing, and one of the great things about coming back was with the ACL, my bones aren't moving anymore," Woods contended. "That's a very comforting feeling, hitting a golf ball and not having your bones slide all over the place. One, it didn't feel good and, two, it caused a lot of pain. It's been very exciting to be able to play that way."

Lack of pain is nice, of course, but being healthy doesn't necessary mean his swing will be grooved as we've come to know it. Or it could look better than ever. Until we witness Tiger in Marana, Ariz., next week, we can only postulate as to how he's hitting 'em and how that will translate into next week's play.

With that in mind, rumors persist that Woods' short game became noticeably stronger during the months he was sidelined -- a scary proposition for the competition.

We'll find out soon enough, as the tournament's No. 1 seed will, if there are no withdrawals from the field before Sunday evening, tee it up against 64th-ranked Brendan Jones in the opening round. For Woods, it will be a welcome homecoming.

"I really miss the environment," he said. "Just being out there with the guys and competing. There really is nothing not to miss. It's such a great place to be out there and compete and do the things you love to do each and every day. I do miss that."

Judging by the reaction to the announcement of his season debut, he's been missed, too. Most anticipated return in the history of golf? I'm still sticking with Hogan, but Woods' comeback isn't too far behind.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

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ESPN Senior Writer


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