CARMEL, Ind. — Rory McIlroy was on the far end of Crooked Stick Golf Club when his phone started chirping Wednesday morning. It was an alert from the PGA Tour saying that Tiger Woods had announced he is planning to come back next month.
Tiger’s return will likely happen at the Safeway Open in Napa at the Silverado Resort, Oct. 13-16. In November, he plans to play in Turkey and in his own event, the Hero World Challenge, in the Bahamas.
“I’m sort of glad I’m not there that week,” McIlroy said. “It’s going to be a bit of a circus. But it’s good to see him back and healthy and it will be exciting to see him back on the course.”
Jason Day, the top-ranked player in the world, expressed similar sentiments.
“I’m looking forward to seeing him play again, seeing what the state of his game is,” Day said. “The hardest thing for him is just to try to get the rust out and get his game sharp. I don’t expect too much from him even though he is Tiger Woods. It’s always tough to come back, even though you’re one of the greatest of all time. It should take a few tournaments but hopefully he gets it back pretty quickly and he can get back to — hopefully not the old ways but closer to the old ways. It would be fun to play against him when he’s at his best.”
Tiger was missed. Few players would’ve voiced that opinion in the early 2000s when he was dominating golf and annihilating opponents. Plenty of careers were blunted and diminished by Tiger’s greatness, plenty of egos were trampled and demoralized. I can’t picture Ernie Els or Sergio Garcia or Colin Montgomerie ever saying, “Golly, I sure miss Tiger.” Nor would they say it was fun to play against him when he was at his best. It wasn’t fun because it was a losing proposition.
Time changes everything. When Woods went down after his third back surgery more than a year ago, some worried it might be a career-ender. In a few public appearances when he swung a club, Woods appeared to do so carefully, even gingerly. He waited a long time before coming back this time, learning from previous admitted mistakes when he returned too soon from injury.
“If we’re going to see him three times in the fall,” surmised Day, who exchanges the occasional text with Woods, “that means his body’s in good shape.”
Tiger is 40 and, after all the injuries he’s suffered, no longer looms as an apparent threat. He hasn’t won a major championship since 2008, or anything at all since 2013 when he won five times. Out of sight, out of mind.
McIlroy, 26, had a few run-ins on the course against Woods in the later stages of Tiger’s career. He has had only a glimpse of Woods but he knows it was something special.
“You miss the buzz he creates at tournaments,” McIlroy said. “He brings an aura and an atmosphere to a tournament that no one else in golf can bring. I missed that part of it, for sure. It would be great to see him give it one last shot for the next half a decade or whatever. Everyone is excited to have him back.”
There are concerns about great expectations. He will always be Tiger, after all. Still, Tiger’s return at Silverado will be more curiosity than anything. What’s he got left? How good can he still be? Can he contend? Can he win? We probably won’t get those answers at Silverado. But the public and the media will jump ahead and speculate. That’s what people do and as a result great expectations will accompany any Tiger tournament appearance.
“It’s definitely not fair, he’s a victim of his own success,” McIlroy said. “There’s been a handful of great athletes in the world in any of our lifetimes that have put up numbers and consistent years like Tiger did for 10 years.” In that 10-year span, he won 14 majors and nearly 80 Tour events so whenever he doesn’t do that, people will say, What’s wrong?
“People forget how good he was. That 10-year stretch of golf is the best stretch we have ever seen on the planet by anyone, Jack Nicklaus’s record or anyone else. I don’t know if anyone is going to emulate that. He is the greatest player who ever played this game, maybe not by records but just by that 10-year stretch of golf.
“People are going to expect him to play well at Napa and it’s going to take time. Sometimes you have to take the longer view and that’s what Tiger started to do with this injury. I’m sure he’s thinking, play at Napa but the long-term goal is if he can get himself ready for the Masters next year.”
The majors and Tiger, that’s a subject we haven’t talked about in a while. Chasing the Nicklaus mark for 18 majors no longer seems relevant or reachable for a player ranked No. 711 in the world. But if he were to win even one more major, or even one more tournament title, the hysteria known as Tiger Mania would return. The media would make sure it did.
I have written since the 2009 fire-hydrant episode that eventually Tiger would become some kind of sentimental comeback story. Well, we’re almost there. The questions are, (1) Can he come back?, and (2) How far back can he come? No one knows, Tiger included.
“That’s tough to say,” Day said. “Whether he comes back and doesn’t play well and his back is still sore, unfortunately that’s one of the terms that he’d have to go out on. But if he comes back and plays well, the game is so tight and competitive now. It’s hard to win. I don’t think winning is going to come as easily as it did for him in the past.
“If he’s willing to do the work and climb that mountain again — he’s done it two or three times before — the possibilities are endless for him. But he is in his 40s.”
We saw Ben Hogan contend in a U.S. Open at Cherry Hills in 1960 at 47. Nicklaus won a Masters at 46, and even contended at Augusta in 1998 at 56. This year, 58-year-old Bernhard Langer played in the next-to-last group in the final round of the Masters, just two strokes behind leader Jordan Spieth. But Nicklaus and Langer didn’t go through three back surgeries, as Tiger has.
(Nicklaus, by the way, is also fired up to see Woods return. “It’s great to see you back and in good health,” the Golden Bear tweeted Wednesday afternoon. “You’ve done so much for the game and it’s better with you playing.”)
This is a new stage of Tiger’s career. Maybe it’s the last act, maybe it isn’t. Could he make another Ryder Cup team as a player? Or if his comeback is unsuccessful, is he going to morph into some kind of elder statesman or (gasp!) a television analyst? The latter seems unlikely but Nick Faldo went from the least social player ever to a golf commentator, so anything’s possible.
Woods drives interest. He is one of the planet’s most famous inhabitants, no matter what he does.
“There’s probably a lot of anticipation to see how the state of his game is,” Day said. “I’m definitely looking forward to watching those tournaments.”
We all are, even if some of us won’t admit it.