ORLANDO, Fla. — Close enough.
That phrase makes a ferocious competitor like Tiger Woods cringe, but it absolutely applies at this moment. Woods was within a shot of the lead with three holes to play here on Sunday in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and that follows being one shot away from the top spot a week ago. Considering where he’s come from, considering the rehab he’s done to his back and his life, close enough is more than good enough – for now.
“If you’d have told me at the beginning of the year I’d have a chance to win two tournaments, I’d have taken it in a heartbeat,” Woods said after finishing at 10-under and tied for fifth.
And for a drama-starved golf world that suddenly has a perfect storyline for the Masters (and Rory McIlroy in winning form after Sunday’s victory), close enough is ideal.
Woods is so out of practice that he heads to Augusta having not putted off bent grass in two years. He hasn’t won on the tour in five years. Less than one year ago, he had a back surgery that is normally performed on a 58-year-old, not a 41-year-old. And yet here he is, on the leaderboard against the world’s greats two weeks in a row. It’s remarkable bordering on ridiculous.
And you can sense he’s shifted from “Can I do this?” to “I can do this.” He approached the 16th tee here on Sunday not content to just be in the running. He felt he needed to play the last three holes at 3-under to force a playoff, even though he was one back of then-leaders McIlroy and Henrik Stenson. (McIlroy won the tournament at 18-under, eight clear of Woods.) So he was going for it.
“If I can play with no pain and if I feel I can make golf swings, I’ll figure it out,” he said after the round.
It didn’t work on this Sunday: He pulled his 16th drive way left, out of bounds, and that basically finished him. He bogeyed a reachable par-5 and then bogeyed a much tougher par-3. He knew the rest of the leaders wouldn’t lapse down the stretch, and he was right.
But that followed a very familiar Sunday charge from the man in red. He went from 7-under to start the round to 8-under after four to 9-under after 6 to 10-under after 8. Like last week, a college-hoops-obsessed sports world had to turn the channel, or at least check the web, just in case. That’s not quite a trend, but it’s … close enough.
The fallout from all this is the ultimate sweet spot for the sport. Woods is not trampling the competition, giving rise to conversations about whether his dominance is bad for golf. (Remember those days?) He’s not scuffling along, hoping to make the cut and finish four rounds. (Remember those days?) He’s good enough to contend but absolutely no shoo-in to beat any of golf’s young guns. He’s healthy enough to play all week but absolutely vulnerable to a tournament-wrecking shot or round.
This week, the joy from the gallery was almost palpable. There were old-timers who remember the ’90s like it was yesterday and grade-schoolers who weren’t alive for the good years. It’s hard to believe, but Woods is now introducing himself to another generation of kids.
“The fans gave me all the adrenaline in the world,” he said.
This makes The Masters next month eminently watchable. Every Sunday at Augusta is a thrill ride, but this year’s version will be more dramatic on Thursday than any in recent memory. And if McIlroy and Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson and Justin Rose are playing at this level, well, golf doesn’t get much more intriguing.
For a moment, though, consider what these two weeks mean for Woods’ career. His golf life is not over, as many thought. It does not have to end poorly, or sadly, as many thought. Playing into his 40s, after four surgeries, is causing nods of approval instead of concerned shakes of the head. You don’t have to like Woods to appreciate this comeback; he could have retired anytime in the past 10 years and vanished from the spotlight and still reigned as one of the best who ever picked up a club. He didn’t.
Things will get more difficult for Woods at The Masters, and then again at any other majors he plays this year. It’s still a stretch to expect a return to the talk about catching Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major victories. Tiger is not truly “back” the way he’d like to be, or the way his fans crave. But he is back in form, back making the weekends into roller coasters, back in a place where the next week might just be better than the last.
That, for now, is close enough.