Tiger at the 2018 Open Championship

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Back in December of 2015, things were looking pretty bleak for Tiger Woods. Three months prior, he went in for surgery on his back for the second time and a month after that, he had to have another procedure done on the same area to relieve discomfort. At this point, it was hard to be optimistic that he would ever be healthy enough to compete at a high level again. So, when he showed up to host the Hero World Challenge, everyone knew he wasn’t going to play, but his words were far more impactful than any driver swing could have been that week.

“I think pretty much everything beyond this will be gravy”

These were the words coming out of the mouth of the most dominant, self-assured athlete of my lifetime. The man who, at least on the golf course, never showed any vulnerability, just told the world that he thought that, basically, he was done as a professional golfer. Even if many of us had thought something similar, it was still a shock to the system to hear those words out of the mouth of Tiger Woods, and that was a full sixteen months before he went under the knife again in April of 2017 to relieve more pain in his back and leg.

It goes without saying that the last few years have been an absolute nightmare for the man who once dominated the game with such ease. From 2014 to 2017, Tiger played in 24 events, finishing inside the top-10 twice. He battled what appeared to be a case of the yips around the green, the only fairways he found were the ones he wasn’t supposed to be playing from, and he looked like he was in constant discomfort. He looked like a broken man. For every moment that he showed he still had some magic in his hands, there were five that made you think he would never put it all together again.

If you have ever read this blog, followed me on Twitter, or listened to me on any number of podcasts, you know that my take on Tiger has been that it was impossible to judge his performance on the course post-2013 because, frankly, we just never knew if he was healthy, and that if he did actually stay healthy for a prolonged period of time, that he would win again. That surgery in April of 2017 though, the fourth one on his back approaching age 42, felt like the end. The DUI a few months later, where he was lucky to not have seriously injured himself or someone else, complicated things even further. As bad as things had been over the last few years, it felt like he had just now hit rock bottom, and even though you knew he was going to try and play again, it was impossible to have a high level of confidence in his future success.

You’ve all seen what has happened this year, though. Tiger looks rejuvenated, both physically and mentally. He doesn’t look like he’s in any discomfort, the yips are nowhere to be found, and my god, the swing speed. Every single time he unleashes one, I cringe and expect that he’s going to fall to a knee, or reach for his lower back in pain, but it hasn’t happened yet. I mean, look at this from Sunday at Carnoustie:

It’s hard to understand how we got back to this point. This time last year, it would have been noteworthy that Tiger got to play Carnoustie with a PS4 controller in his hands, let alone a 9-iron. The fact that the video above, with Tiger lashing at the ball like he was 19 years old, actually happened in 2018 with a major championship on the line, and him leading that tournament on the weekend is something that I didn’t envision seeing again. Some will likely focus on the fact that he didn’t end up winning the tournament, but those people are completely missing the point. The fact that we’re even here having this conversation is remarkable.

Along with that sorcery on 10, his approach on the 6th on Sunday was stunning. The wind had shifted from the previous few days, making the 582 yard hole an absolute beast, playing directly into the unrelenting Scottish breeze. The bunkers that were not in play over the last few days were all of a sudden very much a factor, with David Feherty suggesting that, unlike the first three rounds, it was now a three shot hole for everyone. Tiger had 304 yards into the wind, and belted a bullet of a 3-wood right at the green, chasing after it to give himself a better look. When it stopped just short of the green, he was able to two-putt for a birdie on a hole that played at 15-over par for the day.

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It was eerily reminiscent of the guy that we used to watch. The guy who used his distance to dominate and overpower a field that, frankly, just couldn’t keep up. The same guy who, by all reports, was having trouble walking just over a year ago. In this whole unlikely story, its been the most stunning part of this comeback.

  • Gary Koch: “There’s some of that speed we were talking about, John, that quick rebound. Obviously getting through the ball beautifully, getting up on his toes.”
  • Johnny Miller: “Everything looks like a go.”
  • Koch: “Yeah, it really does.”
  • Miller: “There’s no reason why he can’t start winning again. Absolutely no reason.”

Make no mistake: there are still issues here. The driver is not consistent except in its inconsistency, and while he’s far better with the irons than the big stick, when the misses happen, they feel as large and nowhere near as manageable as they should be when you’re trying to post a competitive number. The misses on the 385-yard 11th, right from the tee and incomprehensibly left from the fescue, are great examples of this that led to a double bogey and destroyed his chances. You rarely see players, especially one of Tiger’s talent level, missing shots this badly. Also, whether it’s nerves or something else entirely, there’s something here about an inability to close rounds when in contention that needs to be addressed. This tournament was in his hands as he went to the back nine, and he let it slip away. Having said that, the very fact that it was in his hands that late in the proceedings should also tell you that he is more than capable of winning again on the PGA Tour, major championship or otherwise.

There’s something else here, too. Tiger has always thrived on the competition; on being the guy that everyone was chasing, and wanting nothing more than to bury anyone who thought they could take him down. That still exists, and you know that even if he may be a nicer, calmer version of who he was fifteen years ago, that at the end of the day, he still craves winning above all else. He mentioned that frequently in his time off, and how the rest of the players on tour encouraging him to come back was a big motivating factor. But now, there’s also this:

There was a moment after Tiger and Francesco Molinari finished playing, with both men walking through throngs of people. The cameras stayed focused on Molinari, and rightfully so: he had just won the Open Championship for his first major title. Off in the background, Tiger was embracing his family, which isn’t anything out of the ordinary by any means, but given everything that he has been through in recent years, I’d have to think that it meant a lot to have them there in that moment as he tried to chase down his first major championship in a decade. He got to show them what he could do.

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For years, golf fans and the current crop of players have all wanted to see Tiger go up against today’s generation of superstars; to see him take on Rory and Jordan in a major, or play in another Ryder Cup, and it always felt like a pipe dream, not only because of Tiger, but because golf doesn’t work like that. As Molinari demonstrated, all of these guys are so good that even the guys who aren’t considered as the very best in the world, are good enough to win tournaments. Sunday at Carnoustie may not have been the exact fulfillment of that dream, but this was pretty special, even if it was only for a fleeting few moments. Assuming Tiger’s health is decent going forward, we’re going to have many more opportunities to see this again, too.

Tiger Woods had a legitimate chance to win a major championship on the back nine on Sunday, with Jordan, Rory, and a host of the game’s best around him. It’s an amazing thing to think about, and it was incredible to watch, even if he didn’t close it out. It’s pretty easy to get the sense that unlike that day in the Bahamas in 2015, that Tiger no longer thinks this is just gravy, and that he wants it as much as the rest of the golf world does. Sure, it’s possible that his back gives out or that something else happens that derails him, but what this weekend at Carnoustie showed us was that there’s a chance that what we all thought was impossible, might actually be possible.

As a fan, you can’t ask for anything more than that.

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