By Dave Kaplan
As I write this column about Tiger Woods, I am overcome with trepidation at the prospect that the 40-year-old could very well withdraw from play yet again this week. The last piece that I wrote about the 14-time major winner, just days before the Safeway Open in October, was nearly rendered moot by his eleventh hour decision not to play. Fortunately, some clever editing salvaged that article. This time, however, the onus will be on me for ignoring the warning signs and still electing to write about a golfer who has not played competitive golf in over 15 months. As the saying goes: fool me once, Tiger, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me!
To be fair, the appeal of Tiger’s return is too powerful to be ignored, even if the man has not won a major since 2008 or an event on the PGA Tour since 2013. Woods is, after all, a 14-time major winner and by far the most famous and successful golfer of the modern era. That is why, despite Woods’ current surreal ranking of 898th in the world, sports fans everywhere will eagerly shift their attention to the Hero World Challenge this week for the next chapter of the Tiger Woods saga.
So far, this epic has had everything that you would hope for in a great movie. Tiger’s career has featured, in order, an unlikely rise to fame; a decade-long reign atop the sport; a mighty fall from grace; a redemption narrative; a barrage of injuries and surgeries; a 15-month recovery and training montage; and now an attempted comeback!
When Woods tees off this week at his own tournament, he will do so against 17 of the best golfers in the world. No, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day will not be in attendance this week in The Bahamas, but it seems like just about every other big name in golf will be. Three of the four major winners from last year (Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Jimmy Walker) are in the field this week, as are Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Rose, Louis Oosthuizen and Patrick Reed, just to name a few.
It is, therefore, extremely unlikely (albeit not impossible) that Woods will be the victor come Sunday evening, even though he has won the event five times before! Rather, this week will be more of a chance for Woods to determine both how his body holds up over the course of four consecutive rounds and how his game currently measures up to some of the world’s premier players.
When we last saw “The Big Cat” in action, he had finished tied for 10th at the Wyndham Championship in 2015. However, for the better part of 2014 and 2015, the former World No. 1 struggled off and on with chipping yips and significant health concerns. When Woods withdrew from the Safeway in October citing “vulnerabilities” in his game, many writers and fans suspected the yips had found their way back into his swing.
So far, all initial reports of Tiger’s swing — he has been in The Bahamas practicing for nearly a week now — have been quite positive. Tiger told reporters last week that for the first time in many months, he has been able to control his ball flight and execute all of the different shots in his repertoire. Additionally, Woods is allegedly experiencing that same nervous energy that he used to bend to his will during his tenured reign atop the world rankings.
“If I care, I’m nervous and it’s good to be that way,” Woods told reporters after a practice session in The Bahamas last week. “To have that nervous energy and channel it — into aggression, into focus, into concentration — that’s good stuff.”
Moreover, it will take at least a few holes for the two-time FedEx Cup Champion to get his legs back under him, an issue that Woods also addressed last week on the range.
“It’s a 5-mile walk. You forget what it feels like to be in golf shoes versus tennis shoes. To be on an uneven lie versus a flat one,” Woods said. “I can walk for two or three hours on a treadmill and it’s not the same thing as walking on a golf course. It’s so different, the standing around.”
Woods will also be using a new TaylorMade driver and a Bridgestone ball throughout the week now that Nike has departed from the golf equipment industry — although he will still be using his old Nike irons for the time being.
These won’t be the only changes that you will see from Tiger this week. According to reports, Tiger will also be unveiling his new bag sponsor at the Hero Challenge after MusclePharm had paid him $2.5 million to take their name off his bag earlier in the year. The new bag sponsor is Monster Energy but they’re likely just the first in a long line of new sponsors that will be looking to replace Nike in the equipment category. And there will be others wanting to jump on the bandwagon if the comeback is really on.
It’s never dull around Tiger and that’s especially true when he’s playing. Hopefully, that starts this week.
Dave Kaplan is a Toronto-based freelance writer and golf fanatic who is sneaky long off the tee. He’s on a crusade to inject a youthful perspective into golf media, especially the broadcast booth. Follow him on Twitter @davykap