Here is a prediction: There will be a moment in the Bahamas this week when Tiger Woods hits a long iron flush, going for a par-5 in two. He’ll hold his finish, dangling the club wide left of his body as he tracks the ball in the air with his eyes. Time will briefly feel like it’s standing still. You might even catch yourself holding your breath while watching.
Then, just as the ball reaches its apex, Woods will twirl his club with a flick of his fingers, a move that’s always felt like a blend of artistry and well-earned athletic arrogance. The ball will tumble back to Earth, nestle somewhere near the pin, and there will be bedlam. There will be euphoria. It might feel, in that moment, like Woods has beaten back time and found his old self.
Celebrate it. Soak it in. Give in to those feelings of wonder. Whether Woods is the greatest golfer in history will forever be the subject of debate, but this isn’t: Of all the people who have ever walked on a golf course, no one made you scoot to the edge of your couch in anticipation the way he did. We still long to experience that sensation again, even though it’s years in our rearview mirror.
Here is another prediction: When that happens, when Woods shows a few flashes of brilliance on a fairly easy course where he is comfortable playing, the world of golf will be flooded (once again) by a tsunami of hype and unrealistic expectations. Your Twitter feed will be overstuffed with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people insisting that “Tiger is back, baby!” The Golf Channel will feel, for a time, like it has changed its name to “The Tiger Channel.” Someone in the media, perhaps desperate for clicks or just simply lost in a fog of longing, will insist that Woods will contend at the Masters. They’ll argue that Jack Nicklaus‘ record of 18 major is still within reach. Woods now has a swing he can win with, you’ll hear from people like Hank Haney (Woods’ former swing coach, who said exactly that, based on seeing one slow motion video) and the game’s young stars had best beware.
Celebrate the first prediction, if it comes to pass. High-five a friend, tweet a funny gif, or dust off your old Nike Sasquatch driver and give it a few swings. But be cautious, even downright cynical, of the circus that will inevitably follow. The world of golf cannot help itself. We are still addicted, financially and emotionally, to the belief that Tiger Woods can be great again. We seem hopeful the past four years have been a bad dream, that one majestic club twirl will wake us up, and it’ll be 2008 again.
It’s understandable. But it’s a cycle that’s also unsustainable. Not just for golf fans, media and sponsors, but primarily for Woods. I’m convinced that the more we cling to the belief that we can still have the Tiger of old, the worse it is for Tiger’s chances to stay healthy — and become a viable golfer — in the present. And future.
The man you’ll see this week at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas has put his body through a great deal of therapy and strain to get back to this moment. If he’s nothing but a ceremonial golfer from this point forward, you still have to admire his desire to try. There is a hint of nobility in that struggle, the willingness to put himself back out there and risk embarrassment. Golfers have rebuilt their swings and reestablished their game after one back surgery, but never four. If this attempt fails, there is a good chance there won’t be a fifth surgery — or comeback attempt.
My one hope for Woods, going forward, is that he has someone in his life he trusts who can be honest with him, who will try to curtail his most stubborn, macho impulses. He doesn’t need sycophancy; he needs another alpha in his life to help him map out his future. Convince him to put down the weights and consider taking up yoga. Insist he pass on the next 17-hour flight to Dubai, even if he’s promised millions just for showing up. Advise him not to play in events like the Farmer’s Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, where it might be 51 degrees and he’ll be hitting out of U.S. Open-length rough. Woods could draw real satisfaction in tormenting today’s young stars — the same players he once inspired to take up golf — by making birdies even when they’re 50 yards past him, in part because he’s always in the fairway, courtesy of another beautiful 2-iron stinger.
Two things that surgery cannot cure, however, is Woods’ stubbornness and, if we are being blunt, his ego. If this comeback is going to work, Woods — and the rest of us — need to come to grips with an uncomfortable reality. He will never be the same golfer he was in his 20s and 30s, bombing drives past everyone and gouging balls out of ankle-deep rough with ferocious vigor. Trying to play that way, now, will simply be a recipe for misery.
It would be like expecting Michael Jordan to continue dunking from the foul line late in his career. There is a reason Jordan worked hard to develop a killer fadeaway jumper. The last time we saw Woods try to play competitive golf in February, he showed no evidence that he found his own version of the fadeaway. Looking lean and lithe in the Bahamas a year ago, he made a bunch of birdies despite erratic driving. But baffling appearances at Torrey Pines and Dubai followed, neither of which made any long-term sense, or showed signs of a cautious strategy. There were also plenty of whispers (some coming from his own people) that part of what derailed that comeback attempt was how obsessed he remained with bulking up in the gym, putting strain on his body and back that it could no longer absorb.
Every time I’ve expressed skepticism about Woods’ chances of making a full comeback, it has been inevitably met with references to Fred Couples, Kenny Perry or Bernhard Langer contending in the Masters late in their careers, and of course, Tom Watson nearly winning the Open at age 59. If they can do it, the conventional wisdom argues, why can’t Tiger Woods? He has more talent than any of them!
It’s certainly true that Woods is more talented than those men, but what each of them grew to possess — and what Tiger still needs to grasp — is an acceptance of their golfing limitations. They remained flexible in their 40s and 50s, and in control of their swings. They did not try to play a young man’s game, bombing and gouging their way up the leaderboard. Woods, similarly, can no longer smash the ball a quarter mile the way Justin Thomas, or Dustin Johnson, or Rory McIlroy can. He cannot overpower courses, reaching every par-5 in two, or dig his way out of gnarly rough that is as thick as spinach when his drives go wayward. But everything we know about his most recent practice rounds suggests he cannot resist the temptation to try to keep up with the next generation, at least off the tee. It’s not that Woods isn’t capable of playing strategic golf. He possesses one of the greatest minds the game has ever seen; he just can’t quite let go of the golfer he used to be. When people encourage him to try to chase that ghost, they’re actually hurting his chances of staying healthy in the long run.
We can’t let go of Woods as the game’s standard bearer, either, which is why we’ll put unrealistic pressure on him to contend and will put him right back under the microscope for every tournament he enters. He’s good for business, and we can’t resist hyping his return, despite plenty of evidence that he’d benefit from a more realistic outlook. You’re kidding yourself if you think Woods doesn’t feel the burden of our great expectations. Even the last time he was relatively healthy, he seemed to struggle with a creeping sense of stage fright.
Who can forget watching him hit his opening tee shot embarrassingly fat at St. Andrews in 2015, and then watching him repeat the gaff on his approach, dumping the ball into the burn? Woods seemed lost in that moment, the last remnants of his swagger stripped away, and it continued through the PGA Championship. Yet when he showed up at the Wyndham Championship later that summer, with expectations low and the pressure nonexistent, we got three rounds of Woods performing like the club-twirling, pin-seeking savant of old.
I want, ever so badly, to believe Woods is capable of that kind of magic in a major one day, that he’ll get hot on a Saturday afternoon — preferably at Augusta — and ride a surprise 66 into Sunday contention. The roars would be unlike anything we’ve heard on a golf course in years. But in order for that to happen, I’m convinced we have to let our appreciation for Tiger evolve and let his game evolve with it. It’s OK if he struggles for an entire season, or even two seasons, as long as he can stay healthy. This entire year should be about learning to play, and recover, without relying on painkillers. Nothing else. We’re so eager to have him back, it seems like most of us have basically forgotten he’s barely six months removed from checking himself into rehab for an addiction to prescription medications after getting arrested for DUI in May and pleading guilty to reckless driving in October.
Maybe it’s impossible in this era for Woods to age out of the spotlight gracefully, the way Nicklaus did, only to surprise us when we least expect it. But I know this: He’ll never have his own version of a “1986 Masters moment” if we continue down this same road, repeating the same mistakes of his previous comeback attempts.
If this is the beginning of The Last Act of Tiger Woods’ Remarkable Career, it would be sublime if his athletic crescendo started with a note we weren’t even expecting: reinvention. We don’t need to drag him into the interview room before every tournament and hear him insist that he’s “really close” to figuring out his new swing, because we’ve already lived through a half-dozen versions of that movie. Let him post an 82 without it becoming the lead on every website or highlight reel. Or at the very least, try to approach those events with a sense of perspective as they unfold.
We’re all hopeful he has one last athletic miracle up his sleeve. But to rush it is to potentially ruin it. He is not close, so don’t hyperventilate. This will take time.