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Why Tiger's Reluctance to Play Could Hurt His Record Chasing

By: | Wed 01 Jul 2020

When will we see Tiger Woods play in a professional golf tournament again? Because of various injuries, scandal-induced lay-offs and plain old reclusiveness, it’s a question that has been asked many times over the past few years. And now that Woods has failed to show up to any of the PGA Tour’s opening events since normal play resumed after the coronavirus lockdown, the pundits are chattering.

And the million-dollar question is: is Tiger’s radically restricted calendar in his best interest?

I’m not sure I’ve given my take on this before, so it’s time to come clean: Tiger’s increasing reluctance to play competitive golf makes me concerned. On the one hand, I’m obviously concerned for the fans (of course, this includes myself) who have supported Woods throughout his career and, in return, expect to see him on their screens. Let’s face it: for most of us, golf is a significantly diminished spectacle without its most famous player. No, Rory McIlroy is not a sufficient replacement. He is the Pepsi to Tiger’s Coca Cola.

But, on the other hand, I’m also concerned for Tiger himself. This is because I worry that by playing such a limited schedule, he could be harming his chances to beat Sam Snead’s record.

For those of you who don’t follow golf quite as obsessively as I do, Jack Nicklaus’s tally of 18 major championships isn’t the only career total that Tiger is chasing. Although he doesn’t talk about it and it doesn’t receive the same level of media scrutiny, Woods is also trying to beat a record of 82 PGA Tour wins set by the late, great Sam Snead. He currently ties Snead on 82 and so needs just one more win to surpass him. Which would arguably make him the best player of all time – even if it’s just me who thinks so.

However, Woods’ refusal to play more than a handful of regular PGA Tour events (and often not even that) might be starting to jeopardise his chances of doing this. Yes, it’s ONLY one more win. But we shouldn’t forget that it’s one more win on the PGA Tour, something even Tiger Woods must find difficult to achieve when he’s rusty.

Tiger Woods

Ring rust, like it or not, is something Woods inevitably risks by playing so few events as we saw in action during 2019. After that glorious, internet-breaking triumph at the Masters, many fans forget that Tiger pretty much completely dropped off of leaderboards for the rest of the season. In his own words, he tried to peak for the majors, so he scaled back playing other tour events. But this approach completely backfired. The result was that he slumped at Bethpage Black in the PGA Championship, came a so-so tied 21st at the US Open and then ballooned to a missed cut at Royal Portrush. Here, he looked finished barely nine holes into his first round. 

Also, there’s the question of pure maths. Because a basic grasp of numbers dictates that, all else being equal, the more events Tiger plays, the more chances he has of capturing that all-important W which would move him ahead of Snead’s record.

Those of you who disagree with me will probably voice concerns about fatigue about this point, as well, of course, the spectre of injuries. You will say that I’m forgetting that Tiger is a long-suffering middle-aged athlete who has ground down his body. You will point out that he has seen more surgical knives than Katie Price.

But hang on a minute. Yes, Tiger Woods’ body isn’t in the greatest of shape. But he is still only 44. He’s not an old man, just a prematurely battered one, and it’s not like golf is a particularly gruelling game. I know we like to talk a tough old narrative about golfers being athletes and the punishing demands of a 100mph swing. But we’re not American football players. This isn’t rugby, and even if it were, Tiger Woods isn’t exactly a weakling.

Furthermore, Woods has also had that mystical magical fusion surgery, so his back is (relatively) strong and the pain that dogged him earlier in his career is greatly reduced. The fruits of this were bourne out by Tiger’s Masters win last year and despite a few wobbles, most conspicuously at the PGA Championship and the Open last year, he looks more than capable of keeping up with a busier schedule. You who fret about his body obviously didn’t see him firing drivers in the Match 2… He looked spry. He looked like a spring coiled and loaded. He looked powerful. Anyone who saw how comfortable he looked duffing up Tom Brady and Phil Mickelson should have no doubts that he is in good physical shape. 

The odds, therefore, look good that Tiger can handle a few more tournaments, although, of course, only the Big Cat himself can know for sure.    

Finally, there is the issue of Tiger’s effect on golf’s wider profile – for the sport is still dependent on Woods for much of its appeal – and the problem of missing out on world ranking points. While one senses that Tiger, who has spent more time in the number one spot than One Direction, isn’t much bothered by this, both of these could be boosted by him simply just playing more.

Will Tiger bite the bullet and up his appearances?

Sadly, the answer is probably not. Historically, of course, Woods has always had a relatively pinched schedule. While he managed a comparatively full calendar of 18 events in 2018, this is the most tournaments he has played by some margin in the last decade, certainly since coming back from the 2009 fire-hydrant scandal that nearly consumed his career.

And although Tiger has shown a willingness to venture from his favourite haunts in recent years – for example, in 2018 he made an appearance in The Valspar Championship, where he would have won if not for Paul Casey’s heroics – it is a rare season that sees him deviate from his now well-established trajectory of kicking things off at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, then the Arnold Palmer Invitational, then the Masters… Well, you doubtless know the story by now. Extrapolating from history, the earliest we can expect to see Tiger return this season is probably Jack Nicklaus’s Memorial.

Surely there has got to be some ring rust? But then again, it’s also worth remembering that this is Tiger Woods that we’re talking about. And in recent years, he has demonstrated a remarkable ability to play well, indeed, better than ever, after long layoffs. Witness, for instance, his shock win in the ZOZO Championship last October. He hadn’t played competitively in ten weeks. Heck, pundits were even claiming the old boy might be finished. But the so-called ‘spent force’ after the Masters put together four great rounds out of nowhere and won by three shots for his 82nd PGA Tour win.

I’d like to see Tiger play more, but, realistically, even if he only tees it up four times a year, exclusively for the majors, Woods will still be a threat to Snead’s record. Win number 83 is always a possibility, and the ghost of Sam Snead will always be looking over his shoulder, wherever and whenever Woods plays. 

Image Credit: Kevin Diss Photography

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