Tiger Has To Be Encouraged By His Play, But the Greatest Challenge of His Career Is Just Beginning

Monday December 5th, 2016
Tiger Woods flashed the Tiger of old during spurts of the Hero World Challenge.
Getty Images

Tiger Woods shot a Sunday 76 at the Hero World Challenge in Nassau, The Bahamas, for a four-day total of 284, four under par, good for 15th-place, 14 shots behind the winner, Hideki Matsuyama of Japan.

The last time you encountered a sentence anything like that was on Aug. 23, 2015 -- 15 months ago -- when Woods shot a final-round 70 at the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C., and finished four shots behind the winner, Davis Love. Prior to last week's glorified exhibition (a field of 17) at the Ernie Els-designed Albany Golf Club, Woods had not played four consecutive tournament rounds since the Wyndham event.

The last time Woods had a satisfactory (by his standards) Sunday round was on Aug. 4, 2013 -- three years and three months ago -- when he shot a 70 to win the Bridgestone Invitational by seven.

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Woods will turn 41 on Dec. 30. He has won 14 major championships, trailing only one man in the category, Jack Nicklaus, who has 18. The Bridgestone win was his 79th PGA Tour win and in that category, Tour wins, he trails only Sam Snead, who had 82. The narrative that has attached itself to Woods's athletic life, one initiated by Woods and followed compulsively by commentators throughout the sports world, revolves around an intense examination of his physical health coupled with a constant examination of his ever-changing swing.

But the truly meaningful question, which will be answered over the next 10 or 12 years, is whether Woods will be the undisputed greatest golfer of all-time or one of the top three or four or five, along with Nicklaus and Snead, along with Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones. That's why Woods's performance at the Albany course was watched more closely than any spring-training baseball game, any pre-season NFL game, any Olympic swimming time trial. Only Tiger Woods could elevate an off-season fundraiser (for the Tiger Woods Foundation) to something athletically meaningful.

Tiger Woods flashed the Tiger of old during spurts of the Hero World Challenge.
Getty Images

No player made more birdies than Woods over the four rounds -- he had 24 of them -- and nobody had more double bogeys than Woods, who had six, half of them on the par-4 18th. Woods's has been the greatest closer in golf history, but those three doubles suggest a certain mental frailty.

That's golf. You can say whatever you want to yourself and to reporters and to your caddie but the little boxes on a scorecard leave no room for self-talk. After his third round, Woods was asked what was his strength through 54 holes. "My mind," he said. "Always has been." At the height of his powers, that was clearly true. His mind told his body what to do and it did it with astonishing regularity. That was the root of his majesty, and why he was such an extraordinary Sunday player. But the end of his prime was a decade ago. In the history of golf, you'd be hard-pressed to name a single player who became a better chipper and putter in his 40s. It would defy logic to think that Woods can be a dominating player again. The real question is whether he can win again.

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If life were fair, Matsuyama's win, his fourth in his last five starts, would be the talk of golf today. He's the prototypical modern pro, with a bash swing that is a series of perfect positions. Nobody would call him a finesse player. On Sunday, nursing a lead all the way around, he shot a back-nine 39 with a handful of flat-out funky swings. In Woods's prime, you never saw him play a Sunday back-nine like that. But Matsuyama won, further cementing his status as one of the best players in the world. He handles himself beautifully and he deserves our attention. Whether he gets it or not -- beyond Japan, that is -- is another question.

Woods commands attention. With Nike out of the club manufacturing business, Woods was experimenting with different clubs, including one he found in an Albany Golf Club shed. He was wearing golf shoes with peculiar flaps that might have left Arnold Palmer confused. He was sporting long pencil-thin sideburns, a stylish goatee and, on three of the days, a collarless shirt with a racing striping up the spine that has given him so much trouble.

It's interesting. To the layman, Woods's swing in Albany looked terrific, with beautiful timing and balance, on plane, with no hand manipulation, less downswing head dip and, most significantly, less violence. It looks powerful but not, as it often has in the past, one that will make your back ache. But Brandel Chamblee, the Golf Channel analyst and swing savant, saw a whole series of swing flaws that, in his trenchant analysis, explained Woods's two-way misses and his wild highs and lows over the course of 72 holes. Woods's Sunday playing partner, Louis Oosthuizen, seems to swing perfectly week after week and swing after swing. Some weeks he wins but most weeks he just collects a check and moves on anonymously. That has never been Woods's life. David Feherty, playing the Johnny Miller role for NBC, compared Woods's Hero Challenge swing to the swing Woods made as a toddler on the Mike Douglas Show.

Woods has had a half-dozen significant welcome-back-to-golf events over the years, after taking a hiatus for a variety of reasons. After winning the 2008 U.S. Open, Woods did not play for eight months following ACL surgery on his left knee. He returned to tournament play after a four-month absence at the 2010 Masters following tabloid revelations about his private life and a stay in a Mississippi treatment center that specializes in addictive behavior. But this most recent break from the game was by far the longest, brought on by back surgery, a long rehab period and a balky game that he described in October as "vulnerable." That one word showed a refreshing and unexpected level of candor from a player who has spent 683 weeks as the No. 1-ranked player in the world over the course of his 20-year professional career but entered the Bahamian event ranked number 898 in the world.

Only Woods knows what he has to endure to get ready for a round of golf and to recover from one. Between now and the Masters, you can expect him to play a full schedule, and maybe even more than he has in the past. He mentioned the Masters more than once at the Hero Challenge and he surely knows that Augusta National represents his best chance to win a 15th major. It is an extremely tall order. He surely left Albany encouraged in some ways but also knowing that ahead of him is the tallest mountain of his career.

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