If you are looking for a reason why this Tiger Woods comeback might be different than the others, start with the fact that Woods is having fun with it.
“I’d like to thank the committee of 1 for picking myself” he posted on Twitter in announcing that he would return to (sort of) competitive golf at the end of November, for the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas.
It’s his tournament, hosted by his foundation. He’s the committee. Thus the joke.
Woods has now gone four full seasons over which tournament golf, for the onetime greatest player alive, must have felt like some kind of penance. He has one top-10 finish since the start of the 2014 season, three withdrawals and at least that many surgeries, and made 11 total cuts while missing seven of them. Woods once made 142 straight cuts.
So, the humour is at least a start. It follows his posting of swing videos, including one last week, a slow-motion clip of his formerly deadly “stinger” iron off the tee, finished with his once-cheeky club twirl. For Woods, whose previous attempts at regaining his form have been marked by grim struggles and ugly collapses and the startling revelation that the best mind in the game had developed the yips of a weekend hacker, it seems like this time, he is actually … enjoying himself?
Woods did follow this exact path just last year, returning at his limited-field, no-cut Hero World Challenge to shoot a pile of birdies (and also bogeys), but after a missed cut in January he was done again and having another major procedure on his back. He has said, though, that the latest surgery was a breakthrough, making it at least possible that, at 41 years old, he could enter a PGA Tour field and not look like a 12-handicapper.
Whatever happens, the last few seasons have been a reminder of what the sport was missing in his absence. As much as promising young players have arrived to win majors and assert themselves at the top of golf, none has yet matched the sustained ridiculousness of Peak Tiger. Woods won 10 majors in the seven seasons beginning in 2000; in the last seven seasons Rory McIlroy won four and Jordan Spieth won his third last July. The past 28 major championships have included 22 different winners.
And while Spieth has had moments where he seemed most likely to rip off a Tiger-like streak of dominance — his 2015 season was close to the Woods of 2000 — he’s also had long stretches of ordinary play. Spieth has reached number one in the world golf ranking four times, but lost it each time. He’s spent 26 weeks in total as the top-ranked player, almost half as long as Jason Day (51 weeks) and well off the recent standard of McIlroy (95 weeks). Dustin Johnson has been at the top of the rankings for longer than Spieth, at 37 weeks, and he was last seen blowing a six-shot Sunday lead in China. Woods has been world number one for a total of 683 weeks.
McIlroy once seemed a sure lock to follow Woods up the major-championship career leaderboard, but he hasn’t won one since 2014, even though, at 28, he should be in his competitive prime. Spieth should have many more majors in him, provided he can remember how to play the 12th hole at Augusta without splashing his ball in the creek. Johnson, as recently as last year in Georgia, looked about to separate himself from the pack, but then he slipped on a staircase and spoiled his major-championship season.
And that’s what makes the return of Woods so tantalizing. It’s not that someone has become the dominant figure in the unexpected early twilight of his career, but that there is a mob of young bombers — Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, even Spieth — for whom a mighty Woods was just someone they watched on TV. Rahm would have been 13 years old when Woods won his U.S. Open on a bum leg in 2008. Could Woods, after the slow-motion car wreck of the second half of his career, which began with an actual car wreck and hasn’t included many high points since, ever manage to compete with the generation of players who have never had reason to fear him?
I mean, no, right? No. Too many scars, literal and figurative, and too many weapons in his arsenal that have disappeared. He used to be scary long, and now much of the field will hit it farther. He used to make every putt he had to make; when was the last time he made a putt that mattered? He used to cause whole leaderboards to wilt on Sunday, but he hasn’t won in five years and hasn’t won a major in almost a decade. There’s not much to gain from being the sport’s greatest closer when you struggle to make a cut.
But, man, it would be fun to see Woods at least mix it up with that new generation a little. It’s foolish to expect anything close to Peak Tiger, but could he be Peak Charley Hoffman? Hoffman, 40 years old and 46th in driving distance, had seven top-10s last season and was the first-round leader at the Masters. He won in Texas last year.
Could Woods be that? Good enough to not embarrass himself, healthy enough to stick around, crafty enough to post some low scores now and then?
Not long ago, it would have been impossible to imagine that as an optimistic end to Woods’ playing career. And yet, it feels pretty optimistic.
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