Tiger vs. DJ – A Tale of Two Comebacks

Tiger Woods + Dustin Johnson

Let’s be honest – it’s pretty hard to compare Dustin Johnson to Tiger Woods on almost any level.  Since turning pro in 1996 Tiger has amassed 79 professional wins, including 14 major victories, and $109 million in Tour earnings.  On the other hand, Johnson has recorded just eight wins in eight years on tour and has never finished higher than 2nd place in a major tournament.  However, while DJ may not have the same resume as Tiger there’s no doubt he has all the makings of a future hall of famer.

Johnson is consistently one of the longest drivers on Tour, but he also has a very well-rounded game that makes him a solid competitor week in and week out.  Obviously anywhere Tiger goes there are always hoards of fans hanging off his coattails and he certainly has provided some of the most electric moments in professional golf in the last 20 years.  Johnson is Mr. Cool on the course, yet Tiger is generally all business.  The similarity that binds them, however, is the fact that they are both returning from a six month hiatus from the game and are faced with the pressure of getting back into the winners circle again.  While their reasons for taking time off were different, they’ve come back to competitive golf at essentially the same time, yet have seen dramatically different results in their respective comebacks.

With Tiger being so close to breaking Jack Nicklaus’ major championship record fans everywhere have been intently focused on his nagging injuries over the past few years and his recent return to the Tour.  When asked recently about how he spent his time during rehab following major back surgery last year Tiger commented that he spent a considerable amount of time on his short game hitting hundreds of balls.  However, it appeared when he returned at the Hero World Challenge that he might have embellished a bit as his short game looked more like a complete train wreck than the polished machine we’ve seen over the years.  True Tiger fans stood by him and called his dead-last finish at the Hero World Challenge a mere fluke and chalked it up to a little rust in his game.  Even those who aren’t in his fan club gave him a free pass.  But when he missed the cut at the Waste Management Phoenix Open and subsequently withdrew from the Farmers Insurance Open the following week it became clear that there was much more going on with Woods and fans naturally started to get very antsy.

Unfortunately for Tiger, it’s not just one single issue that has plagued him: Yips in the short game, repeatedly yelling “fore right”, glutes that won’t activate.  Honestly, any or all of those could be contributing factors to his troublesome return.  Now, I’m no Golf Channel analyst so I won’t attempt to dissect everything from the type of turf they use in the Western states to the minor intricacies of Tiger’s swing, but after watching his last three tournaments it looks like Tiger has simply lost the mental edge that has been razor sharp throughout his career.  In years past Tiger has shown mental toughness that was unrivaled on Tour, but in his last three starts it seems like he’s wandering somewhat aimlessly around the golf course.  His recent decision to walk away from the game indefinitely could possibly confirm that Tiger is struggling more between the ears instead of where the club meets the turf. Frankly, this time away might be exactly what he needs to get re-centered going into the season’s first major in a few weeks.

Not to pile on to a mountain of pressure already weighing down on him, but Tiger is nearing his 40th birthday and many are wondering if the end of an era is coming to a rapid end.  If you compare Tiger’s career to that of Jack Nicklaus there may be some serious cause for concern.  Once Nicklaus turned 40 he only recorded three PGA Tour wins, including one major, before moving onto what is now the Champions tour.  That’s not good news for Tiger.  In fact, it might even be worse in Tiger’s case, as Nicklaus didn’t suffer from the same injuries that have forced Tiger to take time off from the Tour on multiple occasions.  Couple that with an aggressive field of younger (and healthier) players like Rory and Rickie Fowler and it’s highly likely that we are in the midst of a changing of the proverbial guard on Tour.

While Tiger struggles with a number of ailments that have kept him away from the Tour for the past six months and continue to cause him problems, Dustin Johnson left his budding career due to what he called “personal challenges”.  Those “challenges” were reported to stem from allegedly testing positive for cocaine.  Although Johnson and the PGA Tour both denied such a violation, the timing of his departure and his recent return almost seems to confirm that he was, in fact, under a 6-month suspension.  Regardless, it appears that DJ has returned with a new degree of maturity, which he claims is due to the birth of his first child to fiancée Paulina Gretzky.  In his first event back – the Farmers Insurance Open – Johnson missed the cut but seemed upbeat about his return to tournament golf.  Despite not playing the weekend at the Farmers, he clearly showed signs of his old self throughout the first two days.  He came back quickly the following week at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and not only made the cut but finished T-4 after a weekend spent playing beside his soon-to-be father-in-law, Wayne Gretzky.  If anything, that finish proved that DJ was indeed back and could compete at the same level where he left off six months ago. Then, a week later he battled his way to a playoff at Riviera, showing some of his amazing talents both off the tee and with the short game.

There’s only nine years that separates Johnson and Tiger.  Does nine years make that much difference physically?  We’ve all seen Tiger on TV and know that he’s in outstanding physical condition.  Or perhaps the difference is the wins, earnings and fans on Tiger’s side that makes his return more challenging?  Maybe it’s truly just a mental bump in the road for Tiger.  Maybe he’ll come out of this as sharp as he once was and surprise us all.  Objectively, though, history isn’t on his side and the Tiger of yesteryear may truly be gone for good.  It’s still unclear exactly when he’ll return to the game but no one should be surprised if he pulls into the parking lot at Augusta National in April.  With a course that tough and unforgiving he’ll need to saddle up his A-game and find that mental edge he once possessed if he wants to continue edging closer to Jack’s major record.  As for Dustin Johnson, 2015 could be a strong year for him if he continues to play at the level he did at Pebble Beach and Riviera.  For the time being he’s clearly winning the comeback battle between him and Tiger.

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