Tiger Woods' comeback hinges on an old friend

Tiger Woods packed for the Bahamas this week, packed for Thursday’s Hero World Challenge, packed for his latest comeback to competitive golf. And he packed an old friend: an ancient (by golf technology standards) Scotty Cameron-brand putter that he used in 13 of his 14 major championships.

If there is hope for a Woods late-career resurgence, a return to competing for tournament victories after injuries to his back/knee/Achilles/pride/and who knows what else, well, maybe that is the key – the precious putter.

“I’ve put some old clubs back in the bag,” Woods said. “I have my old Cameron.”

On Tuesday, talking to the assembled media at the swanky Albany Golf Course, Tiger sounded like Tiger. He sounded like he usually does for these returns – hopeful, happy, confident … borderline delusional.

“I’m going to try to do the same thing I always do,” Woods said. “I’m here. I’m going to try to win this thing.”

File that under “What Else is He Going to Say.”

No harm in trying to win, but realism is required when discussing a soon-to-be 41-year-old who admits his most recent back troubles were so significant he needed help just to roll out of bed in the morning. He hasn’t played in nearly 16 months, hasn’t won on Tour since 2013 and hasn’t captured a major since 2008.

Look, virtually everyone associated with the game of golf wants Tiger Woods to return to being a significant presence on the PGA Tour; the sport is simply more exciting with him than it is without him.

Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth and the others will carry it on going forward, but a late-career run from Tiger sure would be fun. Forget catching Jack Nicklaus and his 18 majors; most golf fans would just take a good and occasionally great Tiger Woods.

Tiger Woods is back, but not even he knows what to expect next. (Getty Images)
Tiger Woods is back, but not even he knows what to expect next. (Getty Images)

What isn’t going to happen, though, is some switch flipping that suddenly recreates the Woods of his decade-ago prime. Physically, that just isn’t how it works. Competitively, either. As Woods repeatedly noted Tuesday (and has been echoing for years), the parts of his old game that captured the imagination of fans around the globe wouldn’t even stand out these days.

That was when he was young and strong and hammering tee shots like few had ever seen. Alpha Dog Tiger, clad in Sunday red, was the enduring image. Even if he could teleport back to that performance, it would be hopelessly out of date.

“I’m not the second-longest guy on tour anymore,” Woods said. “When I came out here in [1996] and [1997], I averaged 296 [yards]. John Daly was No. 1. Last year, halfway through the year, there were over 50 guys who averaged over 300. It’s a different game.”

Tiger has to deal with what Tiger begot: All these younger guys who grew up swinging out of their shoes like their hero. Only they got to learn with more forgiving club faces.

The days of Tiger intimidating anyone in the tee box are over. They have been for years.

What he can do, possibly as well as ever – and perhaps better or as well as anyone else – is represented in that Cameron putter.

While Woods was famous for his drives, it was his putting that was so often the difference, especially putts under extreme pressure. During his 2000s prime, he regularly ranked among the top putters on Tour. Golf Magazine ranked him as the best putter of all time. He seemed to never miss within 10 feet.

The old putter won’t necessarily bring him back to those days, but if there is one thing to look for this week in Woods’ play, it’s how he fares on the greens. While maintaining a perfect putting stroke is a challenge with age – the hands just aren’t as steady – it is at least a more attainable goal than replicating his bomb-it-all-over-the-course style of play. Even back then, his putter often bailed him out of trouble.

Woods is more than aware of this. During his last few comebacks he said his back was such an issue that bending over to putt – or chip – was either painful or impossible. He said he couldn’t practice. His yips around the green while chipping of late have been debilitating and embarrassing.

“I’ve worked so hard on changing my technique,” Woods said. “That part is not an issue. I’m fine.”

So here comes the putter. If Woods can regain his excellence with the putter then he has an advantage on most players in the field and, if he can remain healthy, should have opportunities to contend and perhaps even win. That’s even if he never hits it particularly far anymore.

He’s old by PGA standards, which means it’s time for an old man’s game, and that requires a lot of one-putts.

“I want to do this as long as I can, as long as the body will allow me to,” Woods said, before getting philosophical and mentioning some superstar peers that recently were forced to retire from their sports.

“I was talking to some of the guys, Jeets [Derek Jeter], myself, Kobe [Bryant] and Tim Duncan all came in at the same time, [1996/1997],” Tiger said. “We all came out and made our splash at the same time, to see those guys, in those various sports, if you lose a little bit, you’re probably going to be replaced. Same with Peyton [Manning].

“In golf, I can play a different way and get away with it,” Woods continued. “Jim Furyk, not the longest hitter, shot a 58 this year. You can do it different ways. I mean Fred Funk played out here until he was 52.”

Fred Funk? Tiger suddenly felt young again.

“So it’s possible,” he continued. “So I’m just going to have to find different ways of doing it.”

Different ways, yes. But that means the old way, for sure. That means pulling out the Cameron and swinging it as few times as possible. If he can show any signs of that this weekend, then maybe this comeback actually stands a chance.