For a while on Sunday morning, I knew exactly what my lead for today was going to be:
“NOW, he’s back.”
If I had a dollar for every time I have seen someone write or heard someone say, “Tiger’s back,” in the past five years, I would be as wealthy as Eldrick T. Woods.
I might be as wealthy as Woods and his new pal Phil Mickelson combined if I had been paid every time I was asked the question, “Is Tiger back?”
My answer has always been no – and it’s still no after Sunday – and here’s why: Woods won’t consider himself back until he wins a Major championship. Winning a non-Major would be nice, but you can bet he would be the first to point out that it would be a step in the right direction – as in winning another Major.
Jack Nicklaus and 18 were the name and number Woods always talked about when he was dominating golf, not Sam Snead and 82. Would he like to win four more times and surpass Snead? Sure. But I’m willing to bet serious money if you offered him ONE Major or four non-Majors, he’d take the one in a heartbeat.
That’s who he has always been and always will be.
All of that said, it is impossible not to be impressed with this latest comeback. I have said, only half-joking, that the comebacks should have roman numerals attached, like Super Bowls, because there have been so many.
But this one, which began in earnest at San Diego in February when Woods birdied 18 to make the cut at Torrey Pines (he’s BACK!) is, at last, real.
The latest surgery clearly has worked. There have been no limp-offs, no glutes failing to fire, no chipping yips. His play this year has reminded me a little bit of Woods’s buddy Michael Jordan, when he came out of retirement to play for two more years with Washington Wizards.
If you didn’t know the guy you were watching was Michael Jordan, you would have said, ‘That guy’s a pretty good player.’ Jordan averaged more than 21 points per game in Washington.
Chicago-Jordan never averaged LESS than 28.2 per game for an entire season and had EIGHT seasons in which he averaged more than 30. Washington-Jordan, looked overweight and slow compared to Chicago Jordan.
Post-40 Tiger has been a very good player this year. He’s teed it up 12 times and made 10 cuts. Carnoustie was his fourth top-six finish, although the first time he’s played well in a Major: he was T-32 at Augusta and missed the cut comfortably at Shinnecock.
The problem is, people want to compare him to pre-accident Tiger. That’s the guy who won 14 Majors, including a breathtaking seven of 11 in one stretch and four in a row.
As with Jordan, it’s an unfair comparison. This Woods has been a very solid player, moving from 882nd in the world at the start of the year to 50th overnight. Many of my colleagues in the golf media celebrated his move to 50th because it means he’ll play in Akron and they can adore him for an extra week before the PGA.
Let me be clear about this: my scepticism isn’t about the Woods we’re watching right now. He’s played well and he’s behaved well. There hasn’t been a club slam or – as far as I know – any screamed profanities. When he hit his wayward second shot at the 11th on Sunday, the shot that led to double-bogey and was the turning point of his round, he screamed, “Oh my God!”
That’s a long way from the player who unofficially holds the US PGA Tour record for f-bombs and for profanity-related fines.
He also has yet to pull a stalk off after a bad round. At Shinnecock, I made note of the fact that on Thursday, the normally media-friendly Rory McIlroy and Mickelson left without speaking to the media while Woods, who shot 78 that day, answered questions patiently and with humour.
Sunday was no doubt disappointing, but Woods went through all his media paces and talked about how pleased he was that his kids got to see him play well in a Major. Again, a long way from the guy who once said, “Second place sucks.”
I’ve said this many times, I’ll say It again: I don’t dislike Woods. Although I did once spend a long evening with him and feel I have some understanding of him, I’m not one of those media guys who says – as a former writing colleague of mine once said – “I think I know Tiger Woods pretty good.”
I don’t think any of us know Tiger Woods “pretty good”, not even the guys who trail him everywhere he goes on a golf course because their editors insist they do so.
I’ve always said I feel sorry for Woods because for all the success he’s had and all the money he’s made, I don’t think he’s a terribly happy person. I blame his father for a number of reasons for that, including telling his son to not be friends with anyone in the locker room.
Mickelson pointed out to me two years ago that he thinks that began to change when Earl Woods died 12 years ago. I don’t believe that people change, but I do believe they can evolve.
I think we are now seeing a Tiger Woods who is happier and a better person – NOT a new person – but a better one. He’s never going to be close to the golfer he once was because – as with Jordan – that’s an impossibly high bar.
I will always be the guy who bridles at the media panting over ANY athlete, especially one whose fall from grace had as much to do with his own behaviour as his injuries.
On Thursday, I turned the television on and saw that Woods had just birdied the fourth hole to reach two-under par for the first round. On the screen was a graphic: “Open champions over the age of 40.”
A bit premature, no? On Sunday when he led with nine holes to play, sure, but Thursday after four holes? Seriously?
You want a comeback story? Try Serena Williams almost winning Wimbledon less than a year after giving birth to her first child almost killed her. Try Jon Lester coming back from cancer to help both the Red Sox and Cubs win World Series. Try Erik Compton finishing tied for second in the US Open after TWO heart transplants.
Those are comeback stories worthy of our cheers and our tears. Woods’s comeback is certainly worthy of our attention, just not all the panting and cheering.
A lot of people understandably wrote Woods off in recent years. I never went that far. If it were just about anyone NOT named Tiger Woods, I would have said he was done. But you never count out the elite of the elite and Woods is certainly that.
He has come a very long way this year and deserves credit for doing so. But is he BACK?
Nope, not yet, no matter what the media cheerleaders tell you.