NEW PROVIDENCE, Bahamas — So what's different about this iteration of The Tiger Woods Comeback™?
For starters, there’s a new term in play: fused.
That’s how Woods refers to his beleaguered back after four surgeries, the most recent an anterior lumbar interbody fusion that has him pain-free for the first time in years. And when he tells you that with an irresistible beaming Tiger smile, you have no choice but to believe him.
But that's not the only difference Woods cited during his Tuesday-morning press conference in the Bahamas. He can now play "golf for fun" with friends, a pursuit he once presumed was gone for good. He can wake up now, hop out of bed, grab a club and "not use it as a crutch." On Tuesday, Woods called that development "the neatest thing."
On Thursday, he’ll put a tee in the ground at 12:05 p.m. and test his re-engineered back in a tournament round for the first time since January.
So, yeah, things are different and yet also eerily the same. Woods is making his 2017 comeback at the same course he mounted his 2016 comeback, answering many of the same questions he did a year ago. We've seen this movie before, only now the dissonance in the golf world about Woods’s prospects has never been more acute.
You have the optimist crowd, who believe in Woods at 41 like they believed in him at 31, and who will still believe in him at 51. You have PGA Tour pros, who will no doubt compete against him this year, tweeting out goat emojis to remind us of Woods’s place in the pantheon.
But Woods’s polarizing last decade has fueled a vocal pessimistic crowd, too, who predict WDs and revel in his driving inconsistencies. They look back at his 2015 major championships—his most recent tests against a stacked field on a difficult course—where he missed the cut three times.
On that spectrum of will-he-or-won’t-he-be-great, Woods sits right there in the middle, which might be the biggest difference of all.
"I hate to be so mundane on this one, but honestly…I don't know where I'm at," Woods said. "What I mean by that is I don't know how hard I can hit it, what shots can I play."
It could seem like simple deflection to say "I don’t know" but in the scope of Tiger Woods the Greatest Golfer of All Time, it’s significant. He always seemed to know, especially on Tuesday of a tournament week. Even last year, when Woods was still dealing with occasional pain from a balky spine, he sat in the same press room and told many of the same press members, "I'm going to try to do the same thing I always do. I'm entered in an event, I'm going to try to win this thing."
This year, all he wants is four rounds of pain-free golf, working his way around a course and signing a real scorecard at the end. He’s "still learning this body." It’s not hard to understand how the optimist and pessimist would take that assessment in opposite directions.
Woods, though, is keen to do exactly that — learn — perhaps now more than ever. He’s showing layers of humility and deference like never before.
Woods's doctors, he says, have called the shots in this latest comeback. He's admitted in the month since he’s been given clearance that there are shots he still hasn’t practiced. He hasn’t hit the "big slices and big roping hooks." He hasn’t swung full-tilt with an 8-iron through heavy rough. It's quite possible that since the fusion he has yet to walk 18 holes in five consecutive days as he'll have to do this week.
But he has still impressed his A-list playing partners of late, including Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Brad Faxon and Patrick Reed.
At Albany, Tiger will learn something about the state of his game, but certainly not everything. This course will not require him to slash out of heavy rough. He probably won’t have to hit the sweeping hook or fade, but the tight lies around the greens will test his much-questioned short game.
He will make his share of birdies and his share of bogeys, and his fused back will either appear fine or not-so-fine. It’s a process, as he likes to say — a process we’ve been through many times.
So here we are again, boarding the same rollercoaster for a fourth, fifth or sixth time, depending on who’s counting. The first turn is approaching. Hard left? Hard right? Straight up? Straight down?