Comeback Suggests Tiger's Latest Return May Not Be False Dawn
We are nearly a decade removed from his miraculous U.S. Open triumph at Torrey Pines, but golf just can’t let the aura Tiger Woods go. Those subsequent years have been defined by a publicly humiliating scandal and divorce, a litany of injuries and surgeries, and several botched comebacks, all of which should have buried the transcendent magnetism that the 14-time major champion brought to the sport throughout his astonishing dominance around the new Millennium.
However, when the 41-year-old confirmed that he was jumping back into the public sphere for the Hero World Challenge, once again showcasing his game ten months after withdrawing from the Dubai Desert Classic, the atmosphere across social media was feverish. His swing and chipping practice videos – essentially serving as trailers for the main feature – were lapped up and widely scrutinised, while glowing reports on the quality of his play with the likes of Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas seemed barely credible, but the hype was mostly embraced as Tiger had enlivened a part of the calendar when golfers are generally more focused on Turkeys than Birdies.
In the Bahamas this past week – the former world number one reminded us of just why the game has been unable to fully move on from the idea of Tiger Woods. He finished in a tie for ninth at eight-under par, admittedly ten back of eventual winner Rickie Fowler, but there were numerous flashes of brilliance. He shot three rounds in the 60s, made two eagles and recorded 17 birdies, though we had witnessed similar 12 months ago when he led the limited field on that last statistic.
Despite that previous false dawn, this felt significantly different, both for him and those watching. The manner of his play was characteristic not of a middle-aged golfer protecting himself months after final chance spinal-fusion surgery, but one who had the required tools to compete with the young stars who have generally shared the majors and accolades between themselves in recent seasons.
Few would have imagined beforehand that his strongest weapon would have been the driver, but his surprising exhibition off the tee displayed both a power and accuracy that we hadn’t seen for several years. His speed reflected that of the game’s longest hitters – and he frequently matched or surpassed his partners for distance during the event – and the irons often possessed the towering flight that once humbled Augusta National. That famous putting stroke was smooth and reliable, while early concerns about his short game were largely allayed over the weekend. This time, mistakes seemed to be a symptom of competitive rust, rather than something more damaging. But that will be monitored closely.
When Tiger restored himself to the summit of the world rankings in 2013 – which remains perhaps the most underappreciated of his achievements – his five victories on the PGA Tour that year were attributed to a measured and strategic approach, playing within a broken body. Now his physical state appears – on the evidence of this first viewing – to have been restored to a level from before even those most recent successes, and there is an unquestioned confidence within the Californian that he’s now able to effectively progress with his golf, but more vitally in general life.
“It was a very good week,” he said. “I’m excited. This is the way I’ve been playing at home and when I came out here and played, I was playing very similar. I wasn’t quite hitting it as far at home, but I had the adrenaline going here. Overall I’m very pleased.”
Naturally, expectations will have to be reined in once the noise quiets down. Perspective is required. For all that his performance surpassed considered predictions – maybe even his own – the Hero World Challenge is essentially a glorified exhibition including just 18 of the best players in the world, many of whom have largely switched their minds off after a long campaign on tour. Questions will stand about Tiger’s long-term fitness and ability to compete under the most stringent of pressures and course setups, but public optimism is justified in believing that there could be another unexpected glorious chapter in the remarkable tale of Woods.
And that may go to some extent answer why many still clamour for his continued revival. He never had the opportunity to roll back the clock and complete a breathtaking finale – alas Jack Nicklaus at the 1986 Masters – before enjoying a graceful, ceremonial decline. Tiger’s struggles were dramatic and shaming, but many understandably feel that his career deserves a fitting conclusion. It remains to be seen whether that will come to fruition, but there is certainly more chance than before.
There is no question that would be a positive for golf. Woods – particularly one in competitive form – draws unprecedented eyes to the game. We rightly praise and admire the immense talents of today, the likes of Johnson, Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Hideki Matsuyama, but the presence of Tiger would only elevate their status. Jack saw off Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman at Augusta, and the possibility of this generation facing the man who inspired them and laid down the archetype for the modern game is an enthralling thought.
When asked before the tournament whether he could become the player his children have watched on YouTube, Woods self-discrepantly remarked “I don’t know ... he was pretty good.” He was the best, and those consistent heights are likely unobtainable in future, but there is now a fragment of tangible evidence to suggest that this veteran incarnation of Tiger could be better than most.
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