Tiger Is Back, But Still Endangered

Thursday, October 6, 2016, marked 20 years since Tiger Woods first won a professional golf tournament in Las Vegas, a city that exists to provide former superstars with a comeback annuity. It also marked 410 days since Woods last struck a shot on the PGA Tour—not since the final round of the Wyndham Championship in August 2015, when he stumbled late in his bid for an 80th career win, which would have left him just two shy of Sam Snead’s record tally.

His tie for 10th that Sunday was the best finish of Woods’s year, but a few weeks later he underwent two back surgeries and retreated to rehab.

His eagerly awaited return comes at the Safeway Open in Napa, California, this Thursday, October 13, by which point 3,041 days will have passed since Woods won a tournament he really cared about (the 2008 United States Open, his 14th major title). Since then, he has been in a long, steady decline widely mistaken for a series of slumps and injury layoffs.

The landscape has altered greatly in his absence. When Woods last competed, his sponsor, Nike, was a prodigious and profligate force in the golf business, Dustin Johnson was a troubled underachiever, and golf course developer Donald Trump was a caricature of a presidential candidate embarking on a risible campaign. Today Nike is shuttering its golf division, Johnson is the U.S. Open champion and…well, one thing hasn’t changed, though fewer people are laughing.

For 14 months, Woods has been golf’s ghostly cipher—seldom seen, often spoken of, but ousted from headlines by a younger generation. His most high-profile appearance came earlier this month, when he served as a non-playing assistant captain on the victorious U.S. Ryder Cup team. Yet at the post-match press conference he was an afterthought, the recipient of a single, flaccid question near the end of the proceedings.

He won’t be hiding in plain sight this week. He’s playing, and he’s the biggest story in sports. Again.

The scrutiny starts with the equipment Woods will carry in his bag, having been freed from the requirement to use Nike. According to a source close to Woods, he’s been testing clubs by Callaway, TaylorMade and Mizuno. But what he puts in play is less intriguing than the question of whether he can keep it in play. He last hit shots in public in May during a media day for the Quicken Loans National, which benefits his foundation. Three 100-yard shots, three balls in the water.

Woods might have benefitted from low (and thus manageable) expectations this week, but his more fervent fans started warming up the band for another victory march after comments by fellow pro Jesper Parnevik, who practiced with Woods at the exclusive Medalist Club in Hobe Sound, Florida. “He’s hitting it great. He’s pounding it a mile, and he’s flushing everything,” Parnevik told Golf Digest. “On the range at least, his trajectory and ball flight are like the Tiger we knew 15 years ago. Comebacks are never a sure thing, but something tells me his might be spectacular.”

That’s a prediction so upbeat even Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign chief (a.k.a., the Beethoven of bullshit), would struggle to sell. Woods’s few competitive starts in 2015 amounted to a demoralizing spectacle of scattershot drives, ballooning scores and a grisly case of chipping yips—an involuntary flinch on a greenside shot that results in the ball either being chunked far short of its target or bladed far beyond it.

Chipping yips is an appreciably worse affliction than the more common putting yips. A yipped putt misses the hole but at least leaves just a short tap-in. A yipped chip often leaves a traumatized golfer facing the exact same shot again. Putting yips slowly drains a career of its lifeblood: confidence. Chipping yips can make for a swift, gruesome demise.

So what would constitute success for Woods this week? He has passed the sentimental tipping point for all sports legends: in inexorable decline, but still compared to the transcendent athlete he once was. That was an unfair juxtaposition even three seasons ago, when Woods played well enough to win five times, which would be a stellar career resume for most Tour pros.

The notion of him winning this week seems fantastical, even for a man whose famous mantra was “second place sucks, third is worse.” Making the cut to play on the weekend would be an enormous step forward.

And the worst-case scenario? Even reinjuring his back ranks behind a catastrophic reappearance of the short-game horrors that blighted his 2015. If that happens, your news feed will groan under the weight of all the sudden eulogies for his career.

That’s why returning is a physical and psychological gamble for Woods. Arnold Palmer, who died September 25 at age 87, continued to play tournaments into his late 70s, decades after his trophy cabinets collected only dust. His scores were often unbecoming, but that bothered only the proud Palmer. Fans wanted to see him and cared not what he shot.

Woods is only 40 and afforded no such fan indulgence. His every shot will be analyzed, every round autopsied, and every facial expression scoured for signs of pain, physical or emotional. That he chooses to return at all shows an obdurate determination to win again. Or perhaps he’s mellowed and it’s now just a simple love of the game that drives him. Either motive is commendable.

When Woods tees off on Thursday, he is assured a rapturous welcome because fans know exactly what he knows: that the unspoken goal this week isn’t to win a relatively  inconsequential event but rather to not lose something altogether more significant—the hope that golf’s greatest ever player has another act.

Update: On Monday afternoon, 72 hours after committing to play this week’s PGA Tour stop in California, Tiger Woods announced his withdrawal. “After a lot of soul-searching and honest reflection, I know that I am not yet ready to play,” he said in a statement on his website. “My health is good, and I feel strong, but my game is vulnerable and not where it needs to be.”

His admission that the vulnerability is performance-related augurs well for his health, but not for his career. His next target to resume playing is the Hero World Challenge, an event he hosts in the Bahamas, in early December, a few weeks before his 41st birthday. 

Earlier on Monday, the latest world golf ranking was published. Woods, who held the No. 1 spot for 683 weeks, is now No. 786.

—Published at Newsweek.com, October 10, 2016.

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