On Tiger’s 2016 return
Tiger Woods is back. Kinda.
In a statement released on his website on Wednesday, Tiger announced that his latest return to competitive golf would hopefully be later this year with three events tentatively pencilled in. Health permitting, those events are the Safeway Open in October on the PGA Tour, followed by November’s Turkish Airlines Open and his own event, the Hero World Challenge in December. The reaction, as I’m sure you can imagine, was one of pure insanity with all of Golf Twitter basically melting down simultaneously.
I’ve written pieces on Tiger’s previous returns, attempting to figure out what exactly his motivations were, what it meant to his chase of Jack’s eighteen majors and what our expectations should be around those comebacks, and I was thinking about doing the exact same thing here. This one feels different though, and it feels like a lot of that has to do with Tiger’s approach this time around.
With all of the previous attempts, even the ones that ended up turning out to be successful, it always felt like Tiger came back too quickly. He never gave his body enough time to heal, and when he came back out on the course, he was still trying to be 22 year old Tiger despite being in his late 30’s and probably feeling like he was in his late 40’s. His words didn’t help matters either. He claimed to still be coming out to win tournaments, and while he did that up until a few years ago, the last two years that he was out on the course were an unmitigated disaster. He failed to break 80 on several occasions, he appeared to develop a case of the yips around the greens (which he somehow rectified ahead of the 2015 Masters) and he cold topped a ball from the middle of the fairway at Chambers Bay. These are things you wouldn’t expect to do yourself, much less a PGA Tour pro and the best player that many of us have ever seen play the game.
We saw glimpses of the old Tiger at the Wyndham a couple of months later when he was tied for the lead on Sunday, but a T10 finish followed as did two more procedures on his back and we haven’t seen him play tournament golf since. He was always going to come back, but when he appeared at the 2015 Hero World Challenge, looking miserable as hell and saying things like, “I think pretty much everything beyond this will be gravy” and that he was actually going to listen to his doctors, it signalled a shift in not only Tiger’s future but in the way that he was approaching it. Of course, there was always the chance that he would end up ignoring his doctors orders because he’s Tiger Woods, but it never happened and after being away for more than a year, it seems reasonable to suggest that he’s done everything he can to prepare for what could be the final run of his career. Even in his return statement, he was supremely cautious.
” My rehabilitation is to the point where I’m comfortable making plans, but I still have work to do,” Tiger said. “Whether I can play depends on my continued progress and recovery. My hope is to have my game ready to go. I’m looking forward to going to California for my foundation event and Safeway. I’m also excited to return to Turkey and Albany. It could be a fun fall. “
“It could be a fun fall” is not what any of us, justified or not, are used to hearing from Tiger Woods. Tiger’s health at this point feels like the equivalent of walking across a wobbly bridge while balancing a stack of plates on your head; one slight movement here or there, and the whole stack has a chance to fall over. But as Tiger says frequently, it is what it is, and in this instance, his only chance to come back and play well in tournament golf was likely to sit out for as long as he has until he got as healthy as possible. I have no doubt that he probably could have came back to the PGA Tour at various points over the last few months and played, but what would the point have been? Nobody, especially someone like Tiger, wants to be embarrassed in front of millions and that would have been the likely outcome if he came back too soon.
That’s not to say that this approach will work, of course. While he was going through the yips and topping the ball, it was depressing to watch but when you look back on it now, it seems impossible to try and figure out how much of his struggles were because of injuries and how much of it was due to declining skills. I’d like to believe that there’s still too much talent in him and that contending in tournaments is going to happen if he can stay healthy. At the very least, I’d like to believe that we shouldn’t see stuff like this anymore.
But that doesn’t mean that we won’t, especially at the outset. If Tiger’s expectations have changed, and based on his comments over the past few months that definitely seems likely, than our expectations need to change too. I don’t think anyone ever expected the ‘2000 Tiger’ to show up at any point over the last few years, but golf is hard enough when you’ve been playing it on a consistent basis, which is something we haven’t seen Tiger do in over three years. Getting back to any kind of form is going to take some time and we need to keep that in mind if he actually does tee it up in Napa in just over a month from now. He might never get back to any kind of positive form, but at least this approach figures to give him the best chance to do just that.
Johnny Miller said this week that he believes Tiger still has six to eight wins left in him, and if he stays healthy, I don’t think that’s unrealistic. The last time that we saw him healthy, he won eight times in two years, which is the type of run that most players would take for a career. Seeing him compete with the likes of Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy, like Phil Mickelson does now, would be fantastic and as great as golf has been for the last few years, there’s no doubt that a healthy Tiger would make it even better. It’s been strange to not see him out on the course and even stranger to see how he’s not tried to rush it back, but it feels like he did it right this time. Sometimes doing things differently can be a good thing.
We won’t have to wait much longer to find out if that ends up being true for Tiger Woods.