By Larry Fine
WINDERMERE, Florida (Reuters) - Tiger Woods flubbed chip shots and suffered glitches on short pitches that would rile a 20-handicapper, yet the 14-times major winner and colleagues rated his return to competition this week a success.
The 38-year-old Woods finished tied for last in the 18-player Hero World Challenge that benefits his foundation, but believes the back problems that sidelined him the past four months have been fixed as has his golf swing.
New swing consultant Chris Como and Woods have studied videotape of the free-wheeling swing of Woods's amateur days that generated so much power and have gotten him back to that, abandoning some of the technical adjustments he adopted along the way.
"I think it looks better," said old friend Steve Stricker, who was paired with Woods in Sunday's final round at Isleworth. "I think he’s going through it a little bit freer.
"He looks a lot better going through the ball. He's taking a rip at it. He drove it pretty darn good today."
Hank Haney, who coached Woods for six years before a shift to Sean Foley, who was dismissed when Woods shut down his season in August, also gave a thumbs up to the new swing action.
"Am I crazy or is Tiger's swing 10x better than it's been the last few years? Despite his poor score," Haney said on Twitter.
"I don't care what Tiger shot today, some of his swings were his best in five years. Got to get that chipping fixed though, not good."
Woods, however. cannot expect a return to the winner's circle if he gives away shots as he did at Isleworth.
He chunked chips with alarming regularity, sometimes moving them only a couple of feet. Other times he bladed the ball, sending it scurrying way beyond the cup.
Woods judged that his woeful short game was simply part of the swing-change process and will soon be fixed.
"It's a different motion. It's a different release pattern," the former world number one said of what he called his "old/new" swing. "Whether it's the putting stroke or your driver, they're just mini swings. So it has to be the same pattern.
"All it is is practice. I just need to work."
Stricker said he believed the problems can be fixed.
"Obviously his short game, his chipping and putting, is not up to snuff with what he’s expecting out of himself or an anybody else for that matter.
"He’s always been one that his long swing gets into his putting and his short game. It’s what he does. So he’s fighting some of those things in his chipping technique that he’s trying to do in his big swing. But he’ll be fine."
The most important aspect to Woods was his physical condition.
"To come out here and not play in any kind of pain is great progress," he said.
That is a crucial component in any return to glory for the slimmed-down Woods, who throughout his dominating period was one of golf's hardest working players.
"I hadn't been able to practice and dedicate myself as much as I used to just because my body just wasn't there," he said.
"I had so many different times where I've had ball counts. I just couldn't hit beyond a certain amount of golf balls.
"I've got my speed back now. Look how far I'm hitting it."
(Editing by Gene Cherry)