With a healthy dose of perspective and caution as a backdrop, Tiger Woods is back. To what degree will be among the biggest storylines in golf in 2018, as the 14-time major champion attempts to return once again from a lengthy layoff.
The first step in the process was a rousing success, a four-tournament effort in early December in the Bahamas where Woods played his first golf tournament in 10 months.
Maybe it was because expectations were low and previous comebacks disappointed. But Woods, who turned 42 on Dec. 30, tied for ninth at the Hero World Challenge and looked impressive in doing so.
The next step comes when Woods tees it up for the first time in a full-field PGA Tour event, whether it comes at Torrey Pines or Phoenix or Riviera or some other venue.
Getting to this point has been a months-long struggle that included a fourth back surgery, a DUI arrest and subsequent therapy for prescription pain medication and then the uncertainty of how he would respond to the spinal fusion surgery.
Who knew Woods would emerge looking more like the young version of himself than the older one?
There are numerous reasons for Woods to be optimistic, especially when doubt persisted about the ability to play 72 holes or break 80 or any of the other numerous negatives that floated about the Caribbean..
But to beat the likes of PGA Tour player of the year Justin Thomas and No. 1-ranked Dustin Johnson over four days is no small feat.
“I’m excited,” Woods said. “This is the way I’ve been playing at home and when I came out here and played. I was playing very similar to this. Not quite hitting it as far, but I had the adrenaline going and overall I’m very pleased.”
The power he unleased with his driver – and some of the other shots he launched into orbit with his 2-iron – was a remarkable sign of renewal, especially if you understand where he’s been since the first of four back surgeries in 2014 and all the struggles he’s had keeping the ball in play.
Woods had no trouble keeping pace with Thomas, who ranked eighth in driving distance on the PGA Tour in 2017 by averaging nearly 310 yards off the tee. The 2-iron second shot he hit at the par-5 third hole – from 272 yards – during the final round screamed into the air, a towering shot that few in the game possess without a lofted club.
No need for any hybrids, here.
“It’s exciting but you have to try and temper it a little bit,” said Woods’ caddie Jo LaCava said. “We felt the same way last year. Let’s not get too excited. But you have to like what you see, right? There are more reasons to be optimistic.”
The mistake, of course, would be to expect Woods return to his dominating days, when he amassed those 14 majors, 79 PGA Tour events and spent a combined 683 weeks as the No. 1 player in the world.
As recently as 2013, Woods was ranked No. 1 in the world, won five times, including the Players Championship and two World Golf Championship events, and was the PGA Tour player of the year.
But he is less likely to make history these days, his career having been a tattered mess of injuries, withdrawals, chip yips, stage freight and comebacks dating to his first back surgery in 2014.
Since then, Woods has played just 20 worldwide tournaments. He’s had two top-10s, the latter in the 18-player Hero. Prior to that finish in December, he last played competitive round in Febraury, where she shot a 77 with no birdies in Dubai, then withdrew the following day.
And yet, when healthy, it is still a sight to behold, a sound to be heard, when Woods strikes a golf ball. It’s why we still care.
“It’s the same reason that when Michael Jordan came back to play basketball,” said Thomas, one of the young stars who has embraced playing with Woods in friendly matches at home in South Florida. “When you’re one of the greatest of all time to play your sport and just do things that people can’t and haven’t done before and you just have such a huge fan base.
“It’s funny, I’m sitting here talking about it. If he hadn’t done everything he’s done, we wouldn’t have the sponsors we have. We wouldn’t be playing for the amount of money that we’re playing for if it wasn’t for him. Nobody moves the needle like him, even now.”
Henrik Stenson, 41, turned pro around the same time as Woods and has spent his career answering questions about the golf – as have many of his contemporaries.
While that might have been tough at times, Stenson, from Sweden, has long understood the big picture; having Woods around is good for business.
“I think everyone wants to see him healthy and see what he can do,” he said. “Fingers crossed that his game is holding up for the stress going forward. It will be fun to see him back competing.”
The vibe now is considerably different. Woods’ peers are interested in what he is doing, and generally seem excited by his return from a fourth back surgery. Even Phil Mickelson, Tiger’s long-time rival, offered that he looked forward to checking out Woods’ game.
“It would be really great if he could be healthy,” Mickelson said. “It would be great to have him back out and playing again.”
Athletes from other sports have weighed in on Twitter, talking about Tiger’s return. Steph Curry, Bo Jackson, Michael Phelps and Terrell Davis were among those who made reference to Woods’ and him playing again. And players competing in the World Challenge were curious, too.
“Absolutely, we wanted the Tiger Woods update,” Matt Kuchar said. “On every hole we were trying to find an update. We were asking some of the (TV) microphone guys for an update. Certainly I think everybody was excited and couldn’t wait to see how he would do.”
Players who spent years knocking irons against their heads trying to beat Woods have given way to those who idolized him.
For Woods, several years of misery has meant some time to ponder, and clearly there has been some introspection on Woods’ part of late. At the Presidents Cup in September, he acknowledged that he wasn’t sure at times if he would still have a golf career.
At the Hero, he disclosed that a good part of the last few years have been spent managing pain. And he acknowledged just how difficult it was to have any qualify of life, let alone swing a golf club.
Perhaps with all the difficulty has come some perspective. For years, it seemed, Woods did not understand or notice how much those in and out of the game appreciated what he has accomplished.
“It’s pretty neat,” Woods said. “I think it’s very flattering, very humbling that so many people have really enjoyed what I’ve done throughout my first 20 years on tour. I put a few smiles, a few excitements, into people’s lives, and as an athlete it’s very humbling.”
That’s not to say Woods is softening. The intensity on the golf course is clearly there. He got agitated a few times over the course of 72 holes and as his caddie, LaCava said, “As soon as he gets back into competition, it’s win, win, win. You know how he is.”
That part hasn’t change.
But how much will for Woods in 2018? That should be fascinating to see unfold.
January 01, 2018