If Not Now, When? Tiger’s WD Brings More Questions About His Game Than Ever

October 12, 2016

The Big Three never were. We can see that clearly now. There was always only Tiger.

Just the possibility of Tiger Woods playing tournament golf again, even eight years removed from his last major championship, was big stuff this week. Before Tiger announced on Monday that his game wasn’t up to speed and he regrettably had decided to withdraw from the Safeway Open, his comeback quickly developed into one of the sport’s stories of the year.

That’s nothing against Henrik Stenson or Jimmy Walker or any of 2016’s major champions. Tiger is just that big.

In 2015 the golf world became enamored with four-time major winner Rory McIlroy, grand slam-chaser Jordan Spieth and PGA Championship record-setter Jason Day. They filled a void, we tagged the trio with a recycled nickname and golf moved forward without Tiger. Successfully, it seemed.

Tiger’s aborted return is a jagged shot across golf’s bow. You thought golf had kicked its Tiger habit? Well, you thought wrong.

Here we were, ready to embark on another Tiger Woods era at the Silverado Resort in Napa, Calif. Whenever the next era does start, it might be just another tour of duty. In a worst-case scenario, it will be the beginning of his exit from golf.

When will we see him again? Tiger says he is targeting the Hero World Challenge in December. Maybe he’ll be ready by then, maybe he won’t.

It’s funny how this mini-TigerMania episode sneaked up on us. Golf kept us occupied with the PGA Championship, then the Olympics, then the FedEx Cup playoffs and finally the Ryder Cup. It was at Hazeltine where thoughts of Tiger’s return began to snowball.

Woods tried his best to stay out of the limelight and just be part of the U.S. team—another vice captain doing his job, driving around in a cart, hanging with players. Yet he ended up as the most televised vice captain (O.K., the only televised vice captain) in Ryder Cup history. Where Tiger goes, cameras follow.

Then the story picked up even more momentum. Skier Lindsay Vonn appeared on ESPN’s SportsCenter to promote her new biography and, of course, was immediately asked about Tiger’s expected return. Never mind that the two haven’t dated in 18 months. That is the pull of Tiger’s gravitational field. It is impossible to escape.

Hank Haney hasn’t coached Tiger in more than six years, but as one of the few men on the planet who’s ever been close to Tiger, his opinions matter. On his Sirius XM radio gig, Haney said that if Tiger can get healthy and stay healthy and retain his desire, he can still win. Big ifs, but they fueled the media fire.

It just kept getting bigger. Tiger was going to play with two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry in the Safeway pro-am, and he reportedly was going to be paired for the first two rounds with Phil Mickelson.

All those appe-teasers have been scrapped. In a statement Woods said that he wasn’t pulling out because of any physical problems. It’s just that he doesn’t believe his game is sharp enough to compete on the PGA Tour. (He also withdrew from the Turkish Airlines Open in early November.) Well, he spent a week at the Ryder Cup and didn’t hit any shots even though the guys on the team kept trying to goad him onto the range. Though he committed to the Safeway last Friday, a week of practice in California apparently didn’t change anything.

If we take him at his word, this is nothing more than a delay. When he does return, we all will be wondering the same things. Let’s discuss.

Question: What does Tiger have to do for his comeback to be considered a success?

Answer: He probably has a different answer than we do. The old Tiger wasn’t satisfied with anything but winning. The new Tiger may have lower expectations. We definitely should. If Tiger executes shots, swings freely, doesn’t skull any (or many) chips, displays some putting touch and doesn’t reinjure himself, that would be pretty good.

Question: Will Tiger win again?

Answer: If he does, it will be the story of the year. As Haney said, it could happen if Tiger can stay healthy.

Question: O.K., so can Tiger stay healthy?

Answer: We don’t know. Our medical updates come from Tiger, who hasn’t exactly been forthcoming about previous injuries. Hardly anyone in golf has come back from one back surgery, let alone three. (Rocco Mediate and Retief Goosen come to mind.) So Tiger enters uncharted territory with the odds stacked against him. And you know his record about coming from behind to win in a major. (Hint: He never has.)

Question: Can Tiger win the four majors he needs to match Jack Nicklaus’s record total of 18?

Answer: Sheesh, can we at least let the guy tee it up first? It’ll be more than a month before he plays again, and the Masters is six months away.

Tiger questions abound. Tiger answers await. The only thing we can be sure of is that whenever Tiger does come back, we’ll all be watching.