There are dozens of articles detailing Tiger’s return. What makes this one any different? Well, it’s different because I grew up with Tiger Woods. He’s from “the neighborhood.” The neighborhood being the Southern California Junior Golf circuit of the early 1980’s.
While I am 8 years his senior, Tiger and I grew up playing the same summer junior golf circuits.
Tiger wouldn’t remember me. But I certainly remember him. I can still picture him walking the fairways at Big Rec and Alondra Park. Plaid pants, the red shirt, a white hat, and those thick glasses.
We all heard he was something special. But nobody knew how special he would be. Little did we know that he would become the most dominant sporting force on the planet for an entire generation.
No one will be pulling for Tiger more than me. Perhaps it’s because he’s now north of 40 – and for those of us in the “north of 40” group, there’s a certain kinship that arises because we all know, through hard experience, that things just aren’t as easy as they used to be. For most of us, that struggle takes place in anonymity. But for Tiger, that struggle is on full display for all the world to see.
Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer of the modern era. We can debate if he is the greatest of all time, but there is no debate that Tiger has been the most dominant force in golf of the current generation.
From 1999 until 2009 he was virtually unbeatable.
Never before has a golfer dominated – and I do mean, DOMINATED – fields in the same manner as Tiger.
A 12 stroke win in his first Masters as a professional in 1997.
A 15 stroke win in the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
And the dominating victories over the years where he simply lapped the field.
When Tiger was in his prime, there truly was no equal.
But the last four year have been a much different story. Really, the last decade has been a much different story. But for a wonderfully productive year in 2013 when he garnered Player of the Year honors, the last decade has been littered with less than stellar play on the course and less than stellar behavior off of the course as well.
For many, there is hope that Tiger can put all of this behind him with this newest of comebacks, a hope that he rekindle the magic of 17 years ago when he dominated the golf world like no other.
And it is their hope that it begins with today’s Hero World Challenge.
When Tiger tees it up today at 12:05 EST, he will be making only his third start of 2017. The previous two starts this year were disappointing at best, ignominious at worst. A missed cut in San Diego followed by a WD after the first round in Dubai is all Tiger has to show for in the 2017 season.
Add in an embarrassing and disgraceful arrest for DUI, complete with the mugshot and that video…and 2017 clearly had some moments that Tiger and his fans would most definitely like to forget.
But all of that can change this weekend.
All of that can be erased from the memory if Tiger is able to regain some semblance of the form that made him so great less than a decade ago.
I’ve seen the new swing on video – as have many golf fans. The swing looks good. Athletic, free, unrestricted. It’s different, but it has many similarities to the old move. The experts on TV and in print say it looks great, and I believe them.
My only hope is that their judgement isn’t clouded because they want it to look great for so many reasons.
There are a lot of professional golfers – many tolling away on the mini tours of the world day after day – who have great looking swings. Yet, they can’t score their way out of a paper bag.
And that will be the ultimate test for Tiger. After years of failing to be competitive (his last competitive finish was a T10 at the 2015 Wyndham Classic), this weekend will be a great test to see if Tiger can regain the competitive fervor that made him so great.
It’s a small field event. A mere 18 players are in the field. So, there’s certainly a chance that Tiger could pull off something spectacular with regards to the leaderboard. With only 18 players entered, a hot round could easily see him on the first page at some point over the next four days. But I think the expectation for most is simply that he finds a way to be relevant on the golf course again. Given the last 12 months, simply finishing all four rounds would have to be considered as some type of victory.
We’re all going to hold our breath when he hits that driver for the first or second time. Will that wicked two way miss reappear, or will the Tiger of old step up and stripe one down the middle of the fairway?
When he misses a green, any true fan of Tiger’s will certainly be gnashing their teeth as Tiger sets up over his first pitch during this comeback. Hopefully, the chunks and skulls of just a few tournaments ago will have disappeared, and he will be able to pitch the ball with the deft touch he showed so often during his prime.
And, we all hope to see him work his magic on the greens again. In his last starts that come to mind, the effort on the greens was part indifference and part frustration. Yes, there was lots of talk of the old Cameron putter being back in the bag, but the magic never came threw. Not that it was given much chance as he really only played three competitive rounds. So, maybe – just maybe – the magic on the greens is still waiting to show itself.
Maybe, just maybe, we’ll see a glimpse of the Tiger who stared down a birdie putt on the first playoff hole of the 2000 PGA Championship and then walked the ball into the hole as he drained the putt on his way to the title. None of us will ever forget that image.
Or course, the question on everyone’s mind is if Tiger will ever win another tournament. I don’t have the answer to that one. In my 49 years, I’ve learned that trying to read the tea leaves is a fools errand.
As the great modern American philosopher, Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Barra once said, “It’s tough to make predictions. Especially about the future.”
So, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens. If a bolt of brilliance strikes and he somehow manages to beat the 17 other golfers playing in this weekend’s tourney will that count? I suppose it does. But I think the bigger – and probably more reasonable test – is The Masters next April and, really, every April after that for the next five to seven years.
Jack was 46 when he won his last Masters. Tiger is only 41. The field is never very large. Usually, there are really only 70 players who have a legitimate shot to win the tournament. It certainly sets up well for Tiger so maybe that’s where magic will strike again.
Or, maybe it will be at Torrey (where he’s won 8 times) or at Bay Hill (8 wins there as well). Those are certainly courses where he’s comfortable.
But nobody really knows.
But what we do know is that today’s fields are dominated by golfers who really aren’t in awe of Tiger. Back in the day, Tiger had nearly 3/4’s of the field beat before he even teed off in the first round. That was the size of his mental edge. The bulk of the field knew they were playing for second place.
Not since Hogan, had the golf world seen a player with the determination and intensity that Tiger displayed.
But today’s young guns don’t remember the 6 iron from a bunker 218 yards out and over water to win the Canadian Open in 2000. They don’t remember the stinger 2 irons that split fairway after fairway. And they certainly don’t remember that, in addition to being the greatest ball striker and shot maker the game had ever seen, Tiger Woods was also the greatest putter around. Sure, some guys may have had better stats year to year – but when the pressure was on, who else would you rather have putting than Tiger? Exactly.
No, today’s young guns better remember the Tiger who ran his SUV into his neighbors planter when he was fleeing his wife after his infidelity was discovered.
They remember the Tiger who grimaced in pain as he withdrew from tournament after tournament with back pains and glute muscles that would not fire. Who can forget the frailty he showed when he could barely get into his courtesy car in the Torrey Pines parking lot after withdrawing from the Farmers a few years back.
And, of course, they will never forget that mugshot and video from just a few months ago.
They have heard of the Tiger Woods who intimidates and sparks fear.
But the Tiger Woods they have seen is the Tiger who evokes a fair amount of pity and a small dose of disdain.
So, to say that Tiger has his work cut out for him as he begins to compete again is the understatement of the hour.
But there has never been a golfer like Tiger Woods so anything is possible.
The focus of Hogan.
The charm of Arnie.
The competitiveness of Jack.
And an athleticism and commitment to excellence that had never been seen in the sport of golf before.
All of these things combined to make Tiger the force that he was.
If he can tap into just some of this, even if it be for a very short time, who knows what can happen. One of the beauties of tournament golf is that it doesn’t require a sustained effort over a season. You only need to be “on” for four days. Anyone can catch lightning in a bottle for four days.
And certainly the player who caught it more than any other is capable of catching it once again.