Tiger Woods’ Return Is Uncertain, But Appreciate What He’s Given Us

June 7, 2016

Tiger Woods is everywhere; you just have to know where to look.

When Oregon’s Aaron Wise won the individual crown at the NCAA tournament in Eugene last week, Wise was Woods because Casey Martin, Tiger’s former Stanford teammate and now the Ducks’ coach, had enlisted mental-game guru Jay Brunza to help his players—just as Brunza had helped Woods as an amateur.

Beau Hossler was Woods when he winced through a match-play victory with an injured left shoulder, propelling Texas into the team final against Oregon—just as Woods had winced out a victory at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.

Finally, Graham DeLaet was a hairier Woods when he WD’d from the Memorial last week because, he tweeted, in part, “I’m dealing with incredible anxiety while chipping/pitching right now.” Just like Woods in 2014–15.

As for actual sightings, they’ve been rare since Quicken Loans media day at Congressional on May 16, when a visibly stiff Woods, with nothing on the line but pride, rinsed three consecutive wedge shots from 102 yards and called it a day. Not even Russell Knox’s three wedges in the water at the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass, two days earlier and with $1.9 million at stake, had generated such fanfare. Woods, who has been at 14 majors and not counting since that win at Torrey, said Jack Nicklaus’s benchmark of 18 majors was still in reach, but he added there was no timetable for his return.

So where does that leave us? Is Tiger done? Or is he just being patient, finally, after admittedly rushing back too soon from injury in the past?

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Though he mailed in his entry, Woods announced on Tuesday he won’t tee it up at next week’s 116th U.S. Open, at Oakmont. If he is cramming for a comeback, he’s doing it quietly. Late last week a Tour member who plays and practices at Medalist, Woods’s club in Hobe Sound, Fla., said, “I was there this morning for a few hours, and he was not. The only time I’ve seen him in the last three months was a couple of days before the media day in D.C.”

If he were an author, Woods would be J.D. Salinger; if he owned an airline, he’d be Howard Hughes. Woods is out of sight, top of mind. Pitched speculation about his return, much of it wildly wrong, has run rampant. The national magazine stories about him, including one from SI, grow ever longer, one stretching to almost book length at 12,000 words. Investigative journalists Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian are researching a book, promising a “sweeping” Woods biography chock full of new revelations. Of course we’ll devour it.

One of my colleagues posited that Woods could drop down to the Web.com tour and reconnect with his love of the game, thereby rediscovering his mojo. In doing so, he would become the golf version of Andre Agassi, who slummed it to play the Challenger Series in 1997. One problem: Agassi was 27 when he did that, reigniting his career. He retired at 36. Tiger turned 40 last December.

Could Woods take this year off? Embrace yoga? Drop 20 pounds?

“I think Tiger will be back,” Nicklaus said at the Memorial. “I think Tiger would have liked to have played this week. He’s just not ready.”

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Logically we know a substantive Woods comeback isn’t happening. Tiger at 40 barely resembles Tiger at 24, or even Tiger at 31, his age the last time the U.S. Open came to Oakmont, in 2007. He tied for second, a shot behind Ángel Cabrera.

But we want to believe in something out there beyond logic, because therein lies the magic. As with our other obsessions, we might give up trying to understand Woods but for the ineffable quality that made him what he was. His genius was once-in-a-lifetime rare, maybe once in multiple lifetimes, and we were privileged to see it play out.

Phil Knight’s new memoir, Shoe Dog, speaks to this as the Nike major domo describes a quasi-religious group experience at the 1972 Olympic track and field trials featuring the legendary runner Steve Prefontaine:

“Like books, sports give people a sense of having lived other lives, of taking part in other people’s victories. And defeats. When sports are at their best, the spirit of the fan merges with the spirit of the athlete, and in that convergence, in that transference, is the oneness that the mystics talk about.”

Whatever you think of Woods, he gave us that—for more than a decade. Which is why we can’t give up on him. Not yet. From his wildly improbable third U.S. Amateur title 20 years ago, when he rallied from 5 down with 16 holes remaining to beat Steve Scott in sudden death, to his last major title on a bum leg at Torrey Pines, there was never anything remotely logical about him.

As we wait for this creaky and still opaque version of Woods to get past those three back operations, to clear 102 yards and refocus on that 15th major and beyond, we can only hope that’s still the case.