Tiger Woods returns: Why a little hope isn’t a terrible thing

Devil Ball Golf

Tiger Woods is back, yet again, teeing it up this week at his private tiny-field tournament in the Bahamas after a fourth back surgery and a stint in rehab. And yet again, we’ve got to decide whether we should be excited, or cynical, or indifferent. We’ve seen this so many times before, Woods returning from injury or layoff, talking big about his prospects and expectations only to pinwheel straight into the turf after a few disappointing rounds. What makes this latest hype-filled return any different?

For starters, Woods himself is tempering expectations. During most of his comebacks, Woods seemed to think his talent would return to him in full bloom, like Thor holding up his hand and waiting for his hammer to leap back into his grasp. It’s rarely worked that way; while Woods has had some success in the post-Thanksgiving hydrant years, even returning to No. 1 in the world in 2013, his returns follow a familiar pattern: hype, expectation, disappointment.

We got the hype out of the way early this time around in the wake of Woods’ Thanksgiving-week round with President Trump and current World No. 1 Dustin Johnson. The foursome’s fourth, Brad Faxon, fawned over Woods’ play, even suggesting that Woods somehow outdistanced the monumental drives of DJ. That’s got to be overexaggeration — either that or DJ was swinging the wrong end of the club — but given Woods’ mythical status in the world of golf, people swallowed it without question. And thus the hype hit lightspeed right out of the gate.

At a pre-tournament press conference in the Bahamas, Woods also expressed something we didn’t often see during his years of crush-everything-around-me: humility and gratitude. “I’ve come out the other side and I feel fantastic,” he said. “A lot of friends have helped me. I didn’t realize how bad my back was. Now that I’m feeling the way I’m feeling, it’s just hard to imagine that I was living the way I was living with my foot not working, my leg not working, and then the hours of not being able to sleep because of the pain.”

That’s the key to this comeback, right there: the lack of pain. Woods doesn’t need to win for this weekend to be a success. He doesn’t need to finish in the top 10 of this 18-man tournament. Hell, he can finish dead last and still leap 250 spots in the World Golf Rankings. That’s because all he needs to do is finish. That ought to be his goal for this weekend: four days, 72 holes. A couple rounds in the 60s, a couple in the 70s. Get in, get out, walk away from the course without limping. The bar is so low it’s a paint stripe on the ground.

“I hate to be so mundane on this one,” he said, “but, honestly, I’m just looking forward to getting through these four rounds and having an understanding, a better understanding of what I’m at.”

Tiger Woods is returning. (AP)
Tiger Woods is returning. (AP)

Beyond that? Well, that’s where it’ll get interesting. Because this isn’t Tiger’s world anymore, and it hasn’t been for many years. Woods is now classic rock, a relic of a bygone era; he won his first major just months before Michael Jordan won his fifth of six rings. In an era of Snapchatted golf-bro spring breaks, Woods’ attempts at social media relevance — Mack Daddy Santa, look-at-my-lobster — are as endearingly awkward as a minivan dad singing along to Migos in the carpool line.

But Woods isn’t looking to appeal to the millennials, just like he’s not hoping to pile up FedEx points. With all due respect to the Interchangeable Midwest Insurance Company Classic, the compelling story around Woods isn’t whether he’ll one day win some routine October shootaround. No, we’re tuning in to see how he’s going to do in majors, to see if he’ll be able to stalk Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler on a Sunday afternoon, throwing a scare into them the way he did the two generations before them.

There’s precedent here, of course. Jack Nicklaus won the Masters at age 46, four years older than Woods will be should he tee off at Augusta next April. More recently, Tom Watson nearly won the Open Championship in 2009 at age 59. And just last year, Phil Mickelson, then 46, came within a gimme putt of both winning the Open Championship and setting a record for lowest round in a major. (He missed both, and don’t think Woods wouldn’t love to trump Phil one more time by snaring those honors.)

But can Woods still even participate in those majors, a decade past his last victory? Short answer: yes. If there’s one thing golf reveres more than its rules, it’s history. Golf always leaves room for the legends, and Woods still belongs at the very top of that category. Here’s where his former greatness helps Woods immensely. The Masters and the PGA Championship will have a tee time available for Woods for the rest of his life, and the Open Championship will permit Woods to play until at least 2035, when he’ll be 60.

The U.S. Open gets a little bit trickier, but realistically, not much. Woods’ 10-year exemption to play the U.S. Open runs out after the 2018 season. In theory, that means Woods would need to qualify to play in 2019 and beyond. But you won’t see Woods scrambling around a Memphis fairway on a random June afternoon; the USGA will surely offer Woods special exemptions as long as he wants them. As ESPN’s Bob Harig noted, the USGA gave those exemptions to Nicklaus eight times and Arnold Palmer six, and Woods has earned similar status.

Outside of the majors, Woods won’t have to worry about tournament entry. If nothing else, he can use the PGA Tour’s lifetime exemption to get into virtually any event he wishes; the lifetime exemption kicks in after a player has won 20 tournaments on Tour, and Woods did that back in 2000 at age 27. The only wrinkle comes in the World Golf Championships, which only extend invitations to players in the top 50 (top 64, in the case of match play) and don’t offer special or sponsor exemptions. It’ll take quite awhile for Woods to amass enough quality tournament finishes to get eligible for those, should he desire.

But beyond the majors, Woods still has another goal: to kick the ass of yet another generation.

Inspired by Woods, the current generation of golfers divided up TW’s quiver of arrows, each claiming one element. Rory McIlroy has Woods’ competitive fire. Jordan Spieth has Woods’ mountain-in-a-hurricane calm under pressure. Dustin Johnson has Woods’ otherworldly skill set. None of them has the total package, and Woods would like nothing more than to remind them of that.

“In an ideal world, I would like to have them feel what some of my past guys had to go against all those years,” Woods said this week. “I’d like to have them feel that same play.”

After spending most of his career isolated, viewing everyone else holding a club as an enemy to be conquered, Woods has transitioned into a Jedi master role, vice-captaining the most recent Ryder and Presidents Cup teams. He reportedly obsessed over the Ryder Cup lineups so often and in such depth that captain Davis Love III kicked Tiger’s calls to voicemail rather than getting stuck on the phone for an hour.

Sure, Woods played the dutiful mentor, there to help give Team USA that extra dose of confidence. But if you think Woods wasn’t sizing up each and every member of the world top 10, assessing their strengths and weaknesses, observing what kinds of pressures affected them, and storing that data for future use … well, you haven’t been paying attention to how Tiger Woods does business on the golf course.

Imagine that: Spieth, JT, Rory, and DJ rounding the turn on Sunday at Augusta with Woods in pursuit. Or — long as we’re writing golf fanfic — in the lead. It might happen, and it might not. But for the first time in years, we can believe that it could — and that’s what’s going to make these next few days so fascinating.
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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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