A little Tiger prognostication for 2009

Originally Published: February 19, 2009
ESPN.com

After more than a seven-month hiatus, Tiger Woods is ready to tee it up again on the PGA Tour at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship that begins Feb. 25 in Tucson, Ariz.

So what should we expect from Woods in his first event back? How about for the rest of the 2009 campaign? ESPN.com golf writers Jason Sobel and Bob Harig discuss Tiger's return in their e-mail chat, Alternate Shot.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

You know that old saying "The Masters doesn't start until the back nine on Sunday," right? Well, even though we've already had a half-dozen solid, deserving champions and some really entertaining tournaments, I'm afraid the majority of fans -- all but the most die-hard -- have launched a battle cry of "The PGA Tour season doesn't start until Tiger Woods makes his debut."

The truth is, when Woods returns at next week's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, he will have missed just one scheduled start (Buick Invitational) in 2009. I don't think he'll have to play catch-up at all; in fact, by midseason we may have forgotten that he missed time altogether.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

I know what you are trying to say, but I'm not willing to go that far. I think there is going to be an adjustment period for Tiger. He will be better than ever physically, and you know he wasn't going to come back unless he felt he was ready to win.

As his coach Hank Haney often said, he's not coming back just to participate. Still, the man has gone nearly a year without playing a single golf tournament since the U.S. Open. Granted, he won it in amazing fashion.

You just figure, even with Tiger, that he might need a little bit of time. Not a lot, but some -- a few tournaments perhaps. That is why the return at the Match Play still comes as a surprise. It just doesn't seem like the place to launch this comeback.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

Well, you hit the nail on the head -- whether you want to believe it or not. Tiger has so often said -- and this has been echoed by the mainstays in Camp Woods, as well -- that he has never teed it up in a tournament that he didn't truly believe he could win.

The same goes for the Match Play. It could be argued this is an easier event for him to win than a 72-hole stroke play tourney; he has to beat only one player at a time and six overall.

Look, Tiger knows there are going to be millions of eyeballs following his every move out there. You really think he doesn't want to make a huge splash in his return? I know, I know -- wanting to win and winning are two entirely different things, but Woods has proven in the past that a little extra motivation often translates into success.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

True, but even at his best, the Match Play has proven to be a strange deal. We all know the format produces many surprises.

Last year, if you recall, Tiger nearly lost his opening match to J.B. Holmes -- and had to make to a great comeback to pull it off. In another match, he went 20 holes with Aaron Baddeley.

I'm sure he does want to make a big splash, but there is the chance he loses the first day. Or what if he does make it to the finals? That's a lot of golf -- more than a 72-hole tournament -- for a guy playing his first tournament in eight months.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

You're right. And that leads me directly to the next point I wanted to make: Woods is always about two steps ahead of where he lets on publicly. If he maintains he's going "full-bore" and feels really strong during practice sessions, we should take that to mean he's killin' it right now.

Call it humility, a lack of self-hype or simply a way of not letting his opponents know too much, but Tiger lets us only know exactly what he wants us to know. No more, no less. That said, the rumors are that his game is in great shape down at Isleworth, which should be a scary proposition for the competition.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

I wouldn't even call them rumors. Unless John Cook and Mark O'Meara are having some fun at our expense, it sounds as if Tiger is doing quite well. Both of Tiger's Isleworth neighbors have reported good stuff, but even Cook admitted that there is the adjustment period Tiger will have to endure, including getting used to walking again for an entire tournament.

I guess nothing would surprise me -- either way. He could be fabulous starting off or he could struggle, and I'm not sure either one would be a shock.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

Let's cut the wishy-washy stuff, Bob. I've been told by our editor that we're supposed to provide some predictions here, so let's start by looking at his chances next week.

As if you couldn't guess by my earlier comments, I think he'll be just fine. I say he makes it to at least the weekend in Tucson -- which would mean three wins and a berth in the quarterfinals -- but then I don't see him losing once he's that close.

So yeah, I suppose I'll take the bait and pick Woods to win in his return, which should serve as the kiss of death; with me backing him, I'm sure some lower seed will "Stephen Ames" him in Round 1, winning 9 and 8. OK, your turn. Where does Tiger finish next week?

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

I don't see him winning, but not because he isn't capable. It has more to do with the format and how this tournament has tripped him up before.

I'm like you, if he makes it to the semifinals, he wins. I just don't think he'll make it to the weekend. Tiger wins his first two matches, then gets bounced Friday -- which might not be the worst thing, because he avoids those 36-hole weekend rounds.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

As if he needed more motivation & I'm sure he'll be happy to clip your prediction and post it on the refrigerator in his Tucson rental house for a constant reminder during the week.

Let's move on to more prognostications. How many PGA Tour events will Woods win this year?

Obviously, he can choose to play or skip any event he chooses, but I've got him competing in the Match Play, WGC-CA Championship, Arnold Palmer Invitational, Masters, Wachovia Championship, Players Championship, Memorial Tournament, U.S. Open, AT&T National, British Open, WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, PGA Championship, Deutsche Bank Championship, BMW Championship and Tour Championship, with other possibilities including the Buick Open and The Barclays.

That's between 15 and 17 official starts. He has won at a clip of 43 percent over the past four seasons (25-for-58), so I'll say he remains right around that number, which would mean about six or seven wins this season.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

It is impossible to guess, because we just don't know how good he is going to be. I still say an adjustment period is necessary. Who knows if he'll even be able to or want to play in that many events?

I don't see him adding to a schedule that saw him play just 16 times when he was healthy two years ago. In 2006, he played just 15 times. All along, Tiger has admitted that he needed to make changes in order to take the pressure off his knee; because it was in such poor shape, he struggled to do so. Now what? Is he attempting to swing differently?

If so, could it be the third major swing change of his career? If you recall, each time he did this before, he won just once in that season. I'm not saying that is the case here, but it could be. So I'm looking at him not quite winning at his recent clip. I see a major championship and three total victories.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

As far as his schedule, remember: In 2006, he missed nine weeks when his father passed away. The next year, he missed one scheduled start for the birth of his daughter. And last year, obviously, he competed only six times due to the knee and leg injuries.

So really, Tiger could potentially be on the verge of starting his first uninterrupted season in four years. The one thing we do know with certainty is that barring any further injuries or complications to the previous ones, he'll compete in all four major championships.

It's tough to say you're underestimating Woods by picking him to win just one of them, but & you're underestimating him. Sure, there are plenty of others who could prevail at these events -- everyone from Padraig Harrington, who has won the past two, to Sergio Garcia, who finally seems primed and ready to get his elusive first one -- but if Tiger is playing as good as advertised before ever teeing it up in competition, I'll put him down for two.

And I'll even go so far as to say they'll be the first two; I think Woods gets his fifth green jacket at Augusta then follows it up with another victory at Bethpage.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

Well, if that occurs, then this long stretch without Tiger really will be forgotten. Then we'll be talking about the stuff we were talking about a year ago -- the Grand Slam.

At this moment, that seems very premature to me, but you run the risk of looking foolish when you doubt Tiger. So let's see what happens. It's going to be fun to watch.