Back in Business: Tiger Woods Now Faces a Pivotal 2017 On and Off The Course

December 7, 2016
Tiger Woods, Hero World Challenge, Final Round 5.jpg

Tiger Woods on a golf course is an exciting thing. We all got a heavy reminder of that last week at the Hero World Challenge. Tiger Woods, swinging well and making birdies and climbing up a leader board, is actually one of the most exciting things in all of sports. Yes, the setting was a nearly meaningless exhibition, yet it was still electrifying, at least for a while. It was Tiger.

What is it?

It’s his physique, his we-are-the-world ancestry, his interesting fashion choices (chopstick sideburns and collarless shirts in the Bahamas), his Chiclets smile, his remarkable athletic resume, his personal history, his health history. It’s our history with him, 20 years for many of us, if not 25. Woods shot a second-round 65 (playing by himself in light winds) and in the third round he was four under through five holes and on a northbound express train. Suddenly, anything seemed possible. Suddenly, it was 2008 all over again.

Then reality set in. Woods is 40 and coming off back surgery. He was playing in his first tournament in 15 months and experimenting with new sticks and a new ball. It was breezy, and the greenside lies were tight. (Not his thing, these days.) Also, Tiger at 40 is nothing like he was at 30 or 20. In the end, he beat two players in the 17-man field. He made the most birdies and the most bogeys, and in the end we learned . . . not much.

In a few weeks, Tiger will turn 41 and chart his course for the new year. Between now and April 6, the day the Masters begins, he’ll talk about getting his game in shape to win at Augusta, and so will we. It’s a story, a possibility, that sucks us all in.

What will be less apparent is simply this: Tiger Woods, 2017, his life and times.

Let’s start here. Woods has a meaningful relationship with the incoming president of the United States. In mid-October, Woods was asked, through his agent, Mark Steinberg, if he was endorsing a candidate or if he had an opinion on whether the Trump course in Bedminster, N.J., was a suitable location for the U.S. Women’s Open next July. Steinberg passed. Last week, Donald Trump sent out a welcome-back-to-golf tweet to Woods. In 2014, Trump and Woods—alongside Ivanka, Donald Jr. and Eric—gathered at Doral for the opening of the Tiger Woods Villa at the Miami resort. Come Jan. 20, Eric Trump, who is taking over the family’s golf portfolio, will become one of the most significant people in the business of building and running golf courses. In that regard, the Trump family’s interests and Woods’s business interests overlap significantly. Each can be good for the other.

Come the new year, the PGA Tour will have a new commissioner, as Jay Monahan takes the reins. Tim Finchem, a masterful politician, understood that in the Woods-Tour relationship, the balance of power tilted mightily in Tiger’s direction. Monahan does not have a disruptor personality, but he is taking over at a time when Woods’s hold on the game is waning.

Woods will have to pay closer attention to his relationship with the Tour, for the sake of the World Challenge and the Quicken Loans National in suburban Washington, D.C., two events that he and his people run. The historic Tour stop in Los Angeles, now called the Genesis Open, is a new fundraiser for the Tiger Woods Foundation, replacing the FedEx playoff event in Boston. The Honda Classic, played at PGA National, raises money for the TWF as well. Woods also has deep relationships with AT&T, as does the Tour. His playing schedule and the Tour’s tournament and broadcast schedule are entwined, and in that sense the Monahan-Woods relationship is significant. It can be a starting and stopping point for a great deal of Tour business.

With Nike out of the equipment business, Woods will be testing a variety of clubs between now and the start of the 2017 golf year. He will continue to promote TGR as a new (essentially) holding company for all his business and philanthropic interests. In March, Woods is expected to publish a book about his historic 12-shot win at the 1997 Masters, his first major as a professional. He has already agreed to be an assistant captain to Steve Sticker when the Presidents Cup is played in New Jersey next September. (The Presidents Cup is run by the PGA Tour.) The U.S. Ryder Cup team is run by the PGA of America, and Woods is being groomed to be a captain.

Which leads us to the most significant relationship change for Woods. In his heyday, Woods was the PGA Tour, and the players trying to beat him—Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III, among others—grew weary of answering questions about his greatness. These days the PGA Tour is a collective again, owned and operated by a slew of players. In his prime, Woods didn’t want or need relationships with his touring brethren. But now he does, and he is working on it. He made so much effort at the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine, where he was an assistant captain. Ditto at the World Challenge. He makes physical contact with players. He puts a hand on a player’s back. He’ll squeeze a neck. He’ll exchange high-fives.

And players are returning the favor in a significant way. In recent months, young stars have all gone out of their way to welcome Woods back to competition, to root for his success.

Really, it makes no sense, at least if you take a micro view. If Woods wins again, it will be at their expense. But they are looking beyond that. These are players who grew up on Woods. They know what he has done for the game, for TV ratings, for the purses for which they play. They want that to continue. The truth is obvious: Now is their time. But it’s hard, if not impossible, to say goodbye to Tiger Woods. Plus, goodbye may be premature. We don’t know, and we won’t get an answer anytime soon.