Commentary

Risk not worth the reward

Originally Published: March 19, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

LAKE NONA, Fla. -- I have no idea why I'm here. Or more precisely, I have no idea why Tiger Woods is here.

Here is the Tavistock Cup, a made-for-TV, two-day friendly among 24 tour players killing time before an actual tournament begins Thursday at Bay Hill. It's sort of like a golf sleepover for Orlando-area neighbors, that is, if your neighbors are multimillionaires and arrive at the Lake Nona Golf and Country Club in helicopters. The players are outfitted in specially designed unis and play out of specially designed bags, and the winners receive a decent-sized check.

A public service ad for First Tee, it isn't.

For reasons not completely clear, Woods is playing in the event. It has no official standing. It means nothing relative to majors and Ryder Cup status, or even to the PGA Tour's contrived FedEx Cup points system. Winning the Tavistock Cup is like being elected mayor of a one-person town.

But Tiger and the nation's most discussed left Achilles tendon are here, so I'm here, too. The assignment: to see whether he can walk without a limp and swing a club.

Eight days ago at the WGC-Cadillac Championship in Miami, Woods limped off the No. 12 tee box after his best drive of the day. He was whisked away in a golf cart to the players' parking lot, ducked into his Mercedes and was long gone before completion of Sunday's final round. A blimp-cam recorded it all as if it were a freeway car chase.

Doctors later determined Woods' Achilles had suffered a strain, nothing more. He took it easy for five days and later announced he was fit for the Tavistock Cup.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
David Cannon/Getty ImagesWhy would Tiger Woods, just more than a week since withdrawing due to injury from a PGA Tour event, play an exhibition match this close to the Masters and subject himself to potentially seven straight rounds of golf? That remains a mystery.

He walked (no limp!) into the clubhouse at 9:24 a.m. ET Monday carrying his own bag and holding his Tavistock uniform on a hanger. He wore shorts and a workout shirt, and his hat was on backward.

About a half-hour later, Woods was on the driving range hitting shots without any sign of discomfort. He congratulated Tavistock team partner Justin Rose for Rose's win at Doral. He socialized with Charles Howell III. He gave a wry smile when Bubba Watson walked in front of him on the range.

The Golf Channel's David Feherty served as the master of ceremonies on the first tee. His introduction of Woods to the 10-deep gallery got right to the point.

"Many of us arrived here by helicopter," Feherty said. "He came here in an ambulance."

For the record, Tiger laughed. And then striped it down the middle of the fairway.

"Well," Feherty said after the tee shot, "nothing fell off him."

Woods and Rose finished a combined 9-under-par in the better-ball pairing with Watson and Howell. I counted six birdies and two bogeys for Woods, who played solidly and occasionally spectacularly during the round.

Not once did I see him favor his left leg or stretch out his Achilles, as he did during that Sunday round at Doral. And when faced with sidehill, downhill or uphill lies, Woods had zero problems.

Afterward, just off the 18th green, he said the limp-off at Doral was "the smart thing and prudent thing" and that he didn't want to risk any more time on injured reserve.

"That's what happened last year, and I missed two major championships because of it," Woods said. "So I just want to be ready for Augusta, hence I'm out here having fun and all's going good.

"I have to do the right thing. Unfortunately there are times when, yeah, I have played through some things that I probably shouldn't have. That's cost me a little bit. I've been sidelined for months at a time because of it. For the first time, I did the right thing. Hence, I'm back in a week, whereas ... I could have been out for a little bit longer."

So the answers to the questions of his being able to walk and play well are yes and yes -- although I still have no idea why he'd risk tweaking that Achilles just 16 days before the Masters begins. Or why he'd subject it to potentially seven consecutive days of play (Tavistock, the pro-am at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the tournament itself).

The main thing is that Woods and his Achilles are on speaking terms again. That's more than you can say for Woods and his former swing coach Hank Haney, whose soon-to-be-released book, "The Big Miss," includes details of their relationship that are jarring, revealing and, at times, sadly National Enquirer-ish, if not professionally unethical.

On Friday, Woods announced on his website that he was playing in the Tavistock Cup. It was the same day The New York Times ran passages from Haney's book.

According to one excerpt, Haney wrote that Woods made a vow shortly before his post-scandal golf comeback. "I learned one thing for sure," Woods said to Haney. "When I play golf again, I'm going to play for myself. I'm not going to play for my dad, or my mom or [agent] Mark Steinberg or [caddie] Steve Williams or Nike or my foundation, or for the fans. Only for myself."

If the recollection is accurate, it could explain why Woods is playing in this glorified club championship Monday and Tuesday. Then again, it could explain nothing. You never know with Woods because he reveals so little of himself to outsiders and insiders. Haney was his swing coach, but not necessarily his close friend.

Maybe it's as simple as this: Woods is playing for himself this week. His Achilles feels wonderful ... he wants the extra work before he plays at Bay Hill later in the week ... he's doing a favor for the Bahamas resort development he represents during the two-day event. Deal with it.

The point is, nobody knows what's going on inside Tiger's mind. There's a wall of razor wire between him and almost everyone else.

Haney worked with him for six years and yet, he writes in his book that he was afraid to ask Woods for a popsicle during a home stay. Does that mean Woods was an uncaring host or that Haney read too much into not being offered a popsicle?

I don't know whether Woods is motivated by love of the game, fear, anger or all of the above. I've seen glimpses of his wickedly entertaining sense of humor. I've seen tears, the 5,000-watt smile and the chilling, impassive stare.

Woods remembers those loyal to him. But he absolutely commits to memory the names of those who cross him.

Haney and Williams crossed him. They are now persona non Tiger. Woods is Michael Corleone. Hank and Stevie are Fredo.

I don't blame Woods for some of his book-related anger. Haney had access not only to Woods' golf life, but to his personal life. To include marital details involving Woods and then-wife Elin seems gratuitous and a betrayal of trust. If I were a tour pro who wanted to hire Haney, how could I ever be sure that what he saw and heard wouldn't one day end up in another manuscript?

Haney tweeted that they were, "My memories too." Fair enough. But Haney is a swing coach, not a trained evaluator of marriages. Adding an innocent bystander such as Elin Nordegren to the book -- and detailing a husband/wife relationship -- seems cheap.

Meanwhile, Haney did raise some interesting questions about Tiger's golf Truth Meter. In short, he suggested Woods lied about the circumstances involving a ruptured ACL in his left knee. Woods said he injured it while running at home in the summer of 2007. Haney said he was told that Woods tore the ACL while participating in a Navy SEALs exercise.

The Woods camp, in no uncertain terms, says the knee injury happened exactly as Tiger described it. But it's clear that such allegations from Haney continue to infuriate Woods.

Of course, you wouldn't have known it Monday. This was a day when Feherty had his fun with Woods on that first tee -- and Woods loved it. It was a day when two female flight attendants for a private jet company stood holding trays of bottled water on the No. 13 tee box as the players teed off. It was a day when on-course TV reporter Gary McCord sat in a sports car as it drove down the middle of the 17th fairway.

Tiger didn't drive. He walked all 18, which is more than you could say two Sundays ago.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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