What if I told you there is a PGA Tour player pushing 42 years of age who has endured four back surgeries and recently suffered the twin shaming of having his genitalia and the dashcam video of his DUI displayed on the Internet…and yet somehow this downtrodden vet found the gumption to play his first tournament in 10 months since a Hail Mary spinal-fusion surgery and that, across four rounds and against all odds, this aging warrior somehow managed to finish better than the world number one (Dustin Johnson), the reigning player of the year (Justin Thomas) and the current U.S. Open champ (Brooks Koepka)?
You would be amazed, right? Well, Tiger Woods is that player, which only complicates the meaning of his latest comeback, which began at last week’s Hero World Challenge, where he tied for 9th in an 18-man glorified exhibition on a cupcake course in the Bahamas. If you are experiencing déjà vu that’s because Woods made a similar comeback at last year’s World Challenge, during which he led the field in birdies. Things quickly fizzled from there.
This time around there is more room for (guarded) optimism, mostly because Woods looked freer in every sense. He says that the fusion was such a success this is the first time in a decade he has been able to practice pain-free, and all that homework showed in Woods’s surprisingly sharp play. More impressive than his scoring touch was the abandon with which he swung his driver, releasing the club well enough to hit towering draws and not the wipey, defensive fade Woods has resorted to in recent years. At times last week his ball speed topped 180 miles per hour, comparing favorably with the young guns in the field who were positively giddy to see their idol looking so spry.
Maybe the biggest takeaway was metaphysical. Woods has always had the most evocative visage in the sport: the assassin’s glint when he was playing the most dominant golf of all time, and then, in more recent years, the grimaces from a broken body and the chip-yips and assorted other horrors. Last week Tiger looked more relaxed and happy than he ever has. In fact, he was glowing. His dad is gone, the meticulously crafted image has been shattered forever, and the crusade to break Jack Nicklaus’s records has been abandoned. Maybe for the first time ever Woods can play the game without crushing expectations.
He has also escaped the vice of addiction. The toxicology report from his DUI laid bare a life that had spun out of control, with the abuse of prescription pain-killers and sleep aides stretching back for years. Woods’s mind and body (and maybe his soul) have been cleansed, a mandatory prerequisite to finding peace between the ropes.
There are still causes for concern. The chip-yips never really go away; they lurk in the nervous system like a virus. Woods played a number of sublime chips and pitches last week but also had just enough iffy moments with his wedge to remind us of his frailties. And though he was delighted to report zero back pain, it was only one week; the real test is if his body can withstand months (and years) of the pounding required to prepare for tournaments and then grind through those long weeks.
Of course, these trifling concerns were easily overpowered by the visceral fun of watching Woods bash majestic 2-irons that looked to have been borrowed from the turn of the century. Every Woods highlight last week led to spasms of excitement from golf fans, reporters and even his fellow players. Given Tiger’s age and mileage, it’s highly unlikely this middle-aged single dad will ever again be a week-in-and-week-out force. But Woods flashed just enough of the old magic that it now seems possible he will enjoy a few more moments in the sun, and be able to leave the game on his own terms. That right there would be a helluva comeback.