Tiger’s Risky Comeback

There was a time when tournament appearances by Tiger Woods were theaters of high drama: the greatest golfer in history ruthlessly chasing down every record worthy of pursuit. But that was before chipping yips and back surgeries, before Achilles and ACL injuries, before personal scandal and swing woes, even before most folks had heard of Rory McIlroy. Or Barack Obama.

Woods returns to the PGA Tour this week 15 months after being sidelined by a pair of microdiscectomy procedures. His reappearance is cause for celebration but also for trepidation, since his more recent performances have veered between farce and tragedy.

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The winner of 14 majors had been scheduled to return at the Safeway Open in October, but just three days after committing to play, Woods withdrew. “After a lot of soul searching and honest reflection, I know that I am not yet ready to play,” he said. “My health is good, and I feel strong, but my game is vulnerable and not where it needs to be.”

Vulnerable?

For fans weaned on Tiger’s cutthroat aggression and indomitable self-belief, the admission of frailty stood out, as though his clubs were suddenly carved from kryptonite. His withdrawal was no routine acknowledgment of competitive rustiness. Golf’s Gretzky was sitting out because he was scared of slipping on the ice.

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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.

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The Open Championship Is Golf As It Was Intended To Be: Miserable

Like many of the small vacation towns that dot Scotland’s coast, Troon seems an awfully bleak place to anyone who isn’t Scottish. The once-thriving shipbuilding industry has long since departed, leaving behind a charmless port trafficked mainly by ferries and freight containers. But only the visitors seem to notice the biting wind and stormy squalls that rip in off the North Atlantic and across the Firth of Clyde with a dispiriting predictability. And that’s in summer.

In winter, it is so desolate you can hear dogs barking in Reykjavik.

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Phil Mickelson battling the elements at Royal Troon.

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Spieth’s Masters Nightmare Should Scare Others Too

Superman teed off with a one-stroke lead in the Masters Tournament on Sunday, but as is often the case in the final round at Augusta National, it was a shell-shocked and defeated Clark Kent who staggered home.

Jordan Spieth had been atop the Masters leaderboard for the better part of three years. On his debut in 2014, he finished second. He won wire-to-wire in 2015, a dominance that continued through the first three rounds this year. By the time he turned for home at 5:05 p.m. this Sunday, Spieth’s lead was five shots. But for every dream realized on the closing holes at Augusta National, several nightmares are made real. By 5:50 p.m., the coronation had become a crucifixion.

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Superman Spieth unexpectedly turned into Clark Kent in the Masters final round.

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The Agony of Ernie Els

Major championships are golf’s most unforgiving coliseums, exposing every weakness and insecurity in order to identify and then celebrate the player most worthy of a victory that both defines and elevates a career. But only on Sunday evening. And only for one player.

For the rest of the competitors, majors usually bring varying degrees of misery, battles against expectations they can’t meet, elements they can’t control or demons they thought vanquished. Especially at the Masters, which began Thursday in Augusta, Georgia.

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Ernie Els with his troublesome putter at Augusta National.

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An Old Master Fades Away

The Masters Tournament, the 80th edition of which begins Thursday in Augusta, Georgia, attracts the drive-by golf fans, those who tend toward an abridged, Augusta-centric version of history. In this CliffsNotes chronicle, Jack deposed Arnie in the ’60s and ruled until his epic Masters victory at age 46, 30 years ago.

Après Jack? A period of unremarkable parity until the Tiger era commenced.

Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods will be at Augusta National this week for the Masters, but physical frailty—induced by age and injury—consigns all three to ceremonial cameos. That leaves the role of sentimental favorite to Tom Watson, who will make his 43rd and final Masters appearance. His farewell offers a timely reminder to casual fans that Nicklaus was himself overthrown by a young rival, one who has aged into the sport’s most durable and complicated icon.

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