By David Zakhodin
It seemed as if it were only yesterday when Tiger Woods concluded four fun and injury-free rounds of golf at the Hero World Challenge a mere year ago. As we watched Tiger pace down the front nine on the first day with a score of four-under through eight holes, we could not help but smile. He may not have been the Tiger of old, but the Tiger we knew and loved was showing signs. Signs that despite three back surgeries, he could still return to the pinnacle of golf with the scintillating play that elevated him to becoming an athlete that transcended golf. And just as we began hoping that Tiger was truly back and ready to make a run at the 2017 Masters, everything hit rock bottom similar to the way in which it had so many times before.
It started with Tiger pulling out of the Farmers Insurance Open and continued with an inexplicable trip to a European Tour event in Dubai that aggravated his back injury. By the time the fourteen-time Major champion announced he would be skipping the Masters, it seemed a fourth back surgery was all but inevitable. One wouldn’t necessarily have to go out on a limb to surmise that no professional athlete had ever accomplished anything of significance following four back surgeries, let alone in the sport of golf where the back serves as an anchor for every swing of the club. So why should the case of Tiger be any different? Unlike his great tennis counterpart and former friend Roger Federer, who won not one but two Majors this year after returning from a long-term injury, Tiger has suffered a litany of serious injuries. With his physical durability in question, the odds of winning another Major tournament, let alone playing a semi-full calendar, are as unlikely as ever. And even though Tiger will only turn a young 42 this December (in golf terms), there are factors outside the golf course that have taken an immense toll on his potential longevity.
Whether it was enduring the death of his father, dealing with the affairs scandal, or laying in his backyard for hours with a bad back and no one to help him, Tiger has been severely more affected by happenings off the course. In fact, the issue of mental durability is as prominent as ever in the debate regarding Tiger’s ability to win another Major. Despite his return to form in 2013 via victory at The Players Championship and re-ascension to world number one, it is without question that Tiger’s mental state has never been the same since that tumultuous Thanksgiving night eight years ago. During last year’s Hero World Challenge, we thought Tiger’s head might finally be in the right place. Absent was the constant frustration and incessant on-camera cussing that followed every other tee shot. Instead, we were pleasantly greeted with a smiling Tiger who looked truly delighted to be back on a familiar course sponsored by his very own foundation. While he didn’t finish the way he wanted (fifteenth out of a field of eighteen), there was still a sense of positivity that came out of the tournament as a result of Tiger having made the most birdies relative to his competitors. Moreover, his commitment to play more tournaments in early 2017 demonstrated that he was invested in this comeback as opposed to taking a halfhearted approach.
The rest of the story with regard to Tiger’s mental durability? We all know it too well. He was charged with DUI over the summer after having been pulled over on the side of the road while driving in the wee hours of the morning. Irrespective of the type of influence under which he drove, the news of Tiger consuming painkillers and anti-depressants was further evidence that his personal health was a priority above any potential aspirations on the golf course. But it seems after several more months of rehabilitation and recovery, Tiger has decided that he is healthy enough, both physically and mentally, to return to the PGA Tour. It started with a few Twitter videos of him casually chipping in shorts. It has now evolved to the point where Rickie Fowler declared that Tiger was driving the ball “miles” further than him on the fairway. So what do we really make of this attempt at yet another comeback? Can Tiger ever be great again?
The answer is, yes. Not because I want him to be, but because even four back surgeries cannot take away the physical talent that put this man on pace to become the greatest golf has ever seen. The failed comeback that was last year’s Hero World Challenge and the start of the 2017 season should serve as a learning point for how Tiger approaches the next (and perhaps last) stage of his career. Despite the fact that his relationship with Roger Federer deteriorated following the scandal of 2009, Tiger needs to take a page out of the book of tennis’ greatest player. That constitutes constructing a logical and smart schedule which accommodates his physical capabilities and places the most emphasis on peaking for the ultimate prize, the Majors. Here is a list of events that should appear on Tiger’s calendar if he is healthy: the four Majors, The Players Championship, the four FedEx Cup Playoff events, the Ryder Cup (as a player not a celebrity co-captain), several World Golf Championship events, and perhaps two additional headlining tournaments such as the Arnold Palmer Invitational (in honor of the late Arnold Palmer) and The Memorial (Jack Nicklaus’ tournament). Evidently, that is the best-case, ideal world scenario in which Tiger would be golfing at an extremely high level and qualifying for the prestigious year-end events featuring the world’s best. The more likely scenario is one in which Tiger would focus more on easing into his schedule and waiting until he could truly trust his body to make the right decisions on which tournaments are most important for him to play. And it goes without saying that Tiger cannot afford to break his back (no pun intended) traveling early in the season to places like Hawaii or European Tour destinations that are nothing but cash grabs for someone like him.
To shift the attention away from Tiger for a second, think of how great golf has been these last several years. The drama and genius that surrounded Jordan Spieth’s Major victories. The emergence of consistent new champions like Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, and Brooks Koepka. The breakthrough victories of outsiders like Danny Willett and Jimmy Walker. The finally-fulfilled dreams of longtime hopefuls like Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia. Imagine taking all those narratives, combining golf’s most successful young guns and veterans, and adding the story of Tiger Woods’ quest for another Major to the next chapter of golf’s history books. It is a story that is yet to be written, but this week at the Hero World Challenge, Tiger once again has an opportunity to put pen to paper and begin etching his name back in the conversation.
No one suggests (other than Vegas’ 20-1 odds for Tiger winning The Masters) it will or should happen at Augusta this upcoming April. But picture Jim Nantz narrating Tiger’s walk toward Amen Corner, wearing red alongside a fellow rival, be it an old one like Phil Mickelson or a new one like Jordan Spieth, with a chance to claim the green jacket. The level of excitement and hysteria not only in the golf world but in all of sports would surpass any previous moment in Tiger’s career, including his U.S. Open comeback in 2008. Tiger hasn’t put on a green jacket since 2005, but how fitting would it be for Sergio Garcia, the man who was supposed to go toe to toe with him for years in Majors, to put that jacket on his shoulders?
Improbable? Yes. Impossible? Heck, no. These upcoming four rounds (we hope) at the Hero World Challenge will shed a little light on what this next comeback has in store. Only Tiger knows to what extent he has recovered from his past ailments. Whichever way his performance ends up turning out, there will be overreactions on both ends of the spectrum. Despite competing against a star-studded field that includes many of the aforementioned recent champions, Tiger’s definition of success may be getting through the weekend pain-free. In fact, that should be the goal for the foreseeable future because he’s not at the stage of his career where he’ll be able to win Majors on one knee or with a subpar back. But if he is indeed as healthy as he claims to be, Tiger will win another Major championship, whether it be this upcoming Masters or further down the road. It seems like that debate, along with Pete Rose’s baseball hall of fame status, has become the most redundant topic ever discussed on a slow news day over sports radio. In the context of golf’s future, though, it is extremely relevant. As simple as it sounds, golf needs Tiger, and Tiger needs golf. With a bit of luck, Tiger has the opportunity to re-invent his career, and this weekend at the Hero World Challenge will give us a glimpse at whether or not Tiger can be great again.