This time a year ago, when Tiger Woods was preparing to launch yet another comeback from yet another injury, the golf world sighed and prepared for the worst.
Look, don’t get me wrong. There’s not a single rational person in any way involved with golf who didn’t want Woods back. Current players wanted to test themselves against the legend. Lapsed fans returned to the game for one more look at the legend. Sponsors and TV execs danced awkward little jigs in their corporate hospitality tents. But the question of “what if” loomed large. What if this comeback flames out like the rest? What if Woods stumbles in yet another major? What if we’re all just fooling ourselves and the guy’s just flat done?
You know the answers to those questions now. Woods throttled his peers, validated his fans, blew through all expectations. He led on a Sunday at one major and came within a hole of winning another. He won his first tournament in five years with a massive, cultlike following trailing him up the 18th fairway. He vaulted from the four-figure world rankings all the way up to a high of No. 12. He proved, by every measure, that he is indeed back.
But that was last year.
Tiger Woods tees it up for the first time in 2019 Thursday at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. And for the first time in more than half a decade, he’ll begin a year without the bubble-wrap of soft expectations surrounding him. And that’s as it should be.
Woods is ranked two spots higher than Masters champion Patrick Reed; you think anyone’s going to give Reed credit for just making a cut? (Reed will deserve credit for not getting into a fistfight with any of his old Ryder Cup teammates, but that’s a different story.) Woods is ranked five spots higher than two-time Masters champ Bubba Watson; will anyone praise Bubba to the skies for making a top 10?
Most notably, Woods stands seven slots higher than Jordan Spieth, the onetime Golden Child who’s mired in an 18-month-long winless muck. But even a Spieth victory would be a candle’s flame next to the blowtorch of Woods.
Yes, Woods receives a disproportionate amount of coverage relative to other golfers. There’s a reason for that, and you saw it on the 18th at East Lake — thousands of fans streaming to follow Woods to glory. Name another golfer — hell, another athlete — who could inspire that. Woods doesn’t move the needle, as the saying goes; he is the needle, and the gauge, and the hardware, and whatever other pieces of metaphorical machinery we use to gauge the public’s interest. Woods’ Tour Championship was the highest-rated PGA Tour event of 2018 and the highest-rated FedEx Cup event of all time, averaging 7.8 million viewers. We’ll go through all this again this year, millions of fans tuning in just to watch Woods while a much smaller subset gripes that there’s too much attention paid to Woods.
But the thing now is, Woods isn’t just a curiosity anymore. He’s a viable player, with — for the moment — as good a chance to win every tournament he enters as anyone else in the field. And he’s got a favorable schedule ahead of him, multiple events at venues where he’s won often. This week it’s Torrey Pines where he’s won nine times, seven in the variously-renamed Farmers’ Insurance Open, once in a Junior World Championship, and once in the 2008 U.S. Open, his most recent major.
It’s the majors that will define this final act of his career. With all respect to the lesser invitationals and opens of the world, Woods is out for bigger prey. He doesn’t need to win more tournaments, he needs to win more majors. And the schedule sets up well: he’s already got major victories at Augusta National, Bethpage Black and Pebble Beach. But to get there, he has to get prepped, and it all begins this week. Woods tees off at 1:40 p.m. ET on Thursday alongside Xander Schauffele and Tony Finau.
Against all sane evidence, Woods spent the last half-dozen years telling us he thought he could win every tournament he entered. Now, at last, we do too. You’re up, Tiger.
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