Tiger Woods, After 15 Months Away, Is Starting to Understand a ‘Different Reality’

November 29, 2016
Tiger Main.jpg

NEW PROVIDENCE, Bahamas — The Tiger Woods reinvention tour has finally begun, 15 months after his last real golf. Beginning what he calls “phase two” of his life and career, Woods made a freighted visit to the press room at the World Challenge on Tuesday morning, offering a rosy report on his game and his surgically repaired back. Woods has never trafficked in transparency, so we’ll have to see how this tournament plays out before we can make a measured assessment of his wounded short game and the “ballistic” nature of his ball flight, to use one of his memorable turns of phrase from the press conference.

But there was victory merely in the alacrity with which he summited and dismounted the press room dais; exactly a year ago Woods limped into the same presser and had trouble merely getting in and out of his chair. In between grimaces he offered a gloomy view of his future, sending a shudder through the golf world. Woods was supposed to return to competition two months ago at the Safeway Open, but he pulled the plug at the last minute, displaying the kind of stage fright that had him chunking back-to-back shots on the 1st hole of the 2015 British Open.

Three back surgeries ensued, and in the self-imposed exile that followed the Safeway it was impossible not to wonder if Woods was done forever. On Tuesday, he admitted he had doubts of his own: “It was a tough, tough time. Yeah, you asked me [last year], could I play? No, I can’t even get out of bed, how am I supposed to swing a club at 120 miles an hour? That’s just two different worlds.”

When Woods hits on a phrase he likes, he tends to use it over and over, a kind of shield from having to articulate original thought. On Tuesday he used can’t get out of bed so often it may become the new it’s a process. But it is a powerful image, golf’s most imperious competitor as a prostrate invalid. Woods has always enjoyed participating in his own mythmaking, but he was somber and real talking about the “trepidation” he’s felt over the last year. “When you’re dealing with a spine, when you’re dealing with nerve [damage], it’s a totally different deal,” he said. “With nerves, you just don’t know.”

Even as his back has healed, there remain questions about Woods’s nerve, as his aborted 2015 season was dominated by chip-yips. In a Tuesday morning interview with Golf Channel’s Damon Hack, Woods said he has fixed himself by ingraining a new technique with his wedges and, sounding a bit like Stuart Smalley, went so far as to say, “I love chipping!” We’ll see if he still feels that way after four days on the especially tight lies of Albany Golf Club.

At least Woods’s tools around the green remain the same, as he is still playing his set of Nike irons and wedges. But with the Swoosh getting out of the clubmaking business, Woods’s extensive testing has led him to put in play a new ball (Bridgestone) and new woods (TaylorMade). In his ongoing effort to recapture old magic, he has gone back to the Scotty Cameron putter he employed for 13 of his 14 major championship victories. It had been hibernating in the putting studio at his home in Florida.

MORE: The Clubs, Balls, Shoes Tiger Will Use at the Hero

“[Son] Charlie knows there are two putters he can’t touch; there’s that black one with the trillium insert I won the Masters in ’97 with, and this one,” Woods said. “They sit next to each other. Touch any other putter, do anything you want with any other putter; these putters are off limits. These two, Daddy only.”

In recent weeks word has emanated from South Florida that Woods was shooting low numbers in casual games, but he knows better than anyone that’s virtually a different sport compared to tournament golf, not least because of the grind of Tour life. In the run-up to the World Challenge, caddie Joe LaCava insisted his man renounce a cart and get his walking legs under him.

“I come in, my ankles are sore, my feet are sore,” Woods said with a chuckle. “Even Joey hadn’t been on a golf course in a while—he rides at home in a cart. He carried the bag, his shoulder’s sore, back’s sore, hip’s sore, ankles are sore. He was saying, ‘I need to get in shape too, so we did it together, we did it as a team, and it was fun.'”

Given the many uncertainties Woods is facing, what’s a realistic goal for this week? Just finishing 72 holes healthy would be a good start. Avoiding a relapse of the chip-yips. Showing the confidence to try to turn the ball over instead of playing the defensive fade he has leaned on in recent years. These are modest, attainable benchmarks, and yet among the first things Woods said on Tuesday was, “Well, 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.”

It’s a script he has been reciting by rote for two decades. No doubt that singular focus propelled Woods to unprecedented heights, but over the last few years, as his game has badly deteriorated, he has become a prisoner of those words, stoking expectations (internal and external) that he couldn’t possibly fulfill. Perhaps Woods is finally realizing that things need to be different in this final act of his career. Late in his press conference I asked him if this week would be considered a success even if he doesn’t shoot good scores. He alluded to “a different reality” and said, “It hasn’t been easy. People around me who know me—my physios, my friends, family—they know how hard it’s been to get to this point. It’s taken a lot of work, but I’m here.”

For now, that’s enough.