There have been more successful surgeries than successful comebacks in the past decade since Tiger Woods slowly transitioned from golfing Superman to mere mortal; from young master to old man.
There have been so many pitfalls it only makes sense to proceed with caution, to keep a skeptical eyebrow raised whenever he gets his joints lubed up well enough that he can muster his creaking chassis back to course for one more try and being great again.
But the possibility that there just might be something left in the tank makes it irresistible for golf fans, sports fans and fans of celebrity disasters – so, a lot of people in other words.
This past weekend at The Hero World Challenge – an official (it counts for World Rankings points) yet unofficial (it doesn’t count on the PGA Tour money list or FedEx Cup standings) boutique event hosted by Woods to benefit his charitable foundation – Woods offered the most encouraging evidence yet that he might just be able to get the old wreck up to highway speed and keep it there without leaving car parts scattering all along the shoulder.
Or driving the Escalade into a tree.
He opened with rounds of 69, 68 and found himself at least in the same neighbourhood as the leaders in the 18-man event. It was hard not be excited.
“I was a little bit surprised. I think everyone was hoping for the best, but it was definitely better than we thought,” his caddie, veteran looper Joe LaCava said after Round 2. “The power and speed and length he’s hitting it I didn’t think it would come this quick.”
But then came Saturday and round three, an 18-hole struggle in blustery conditions where Woods failed to make a birdie until the 15th hole and finished with a three-over par 75, dropping him 10 shots back of the lead and out of contention.
Were the first two days simply adrenalin talking? A form of beginner’s luck? Woods thought not, and rather than being chastened by some loose tee shots and rickety looking chips he was encouraged by the resolve in his game – that being in the battle provided reward enough.
“It’s nice to be part of the fight again,” he said. “Get out there and fighting against the golf course, fighting against the guys, that’s fun. I just haven’t done it a whole lot in the last few years.
“I’m very happy that I’ve hit the ball as well as I have, the feel of my putter, overall shaping of shots and just trying to put together a round.”
And then we were all free to get on with our weekend. Tiger came. Tiger made a few birdies. Tiger’s back didn’t look like it was held together by rusted barbed wire and tape and then he sucked in Round 3.
Let us know if you’re still ticking when the Masters rolls around, K?
But on Sunday Woods served notice that maybe this comeback might be a little different. Keeping in mind he played in this event a year ago and managed to tee it up for one more PGA Tour event before giving into the pain and under-going spinal fusion surgery in April, this weekend did seem different.
On the 336-yard par-four seventh hole Woods knocked his tee-shot pin high and made eagle. On the par-five fifth he ripped a 2-iron 271 yards and should have had another eagle putt had his ball not gently rolled off the green into a collection area.
On tee shot after tee shot he was able to slash at his ball like an athlete half his age, matching distances achieved by a field loaded by the biggest names in golf, a younger generation of power players inspired by his example. There were a pair of unlucky bogeys at 17 and 18 – a little fatigue, perhaps? – and a double-bogey on 10, but a four-under-par 68 was a nice bounce back as Woods ended up at 8-under for the week, tied for 9th.
Most importantly, of course, there was no evidence of a medical chart that would make an NFL player wince with multiple knee surgeries, back surgeries and Achilles tendon tears and strains.
You couldn’t help but look for some signs, as Woods hadn’t completed a full-field 72-hole tournament for 833 days, but there were none and he said there was never any doubt.
“I knew I was going to be able to play all four rounds,” he said afterwards on the broadcast. “… that wasn’t going to be the issue … the issue was: how was my scoring going to be, how was my feel? How am I going to get used to the adrenalin in my system for the first time in a little while. That took a little bit of time …
“[But] over all I’m very pleased. I showed some good signs, I hit some really good shots out there … and no pain.”
His kids, son Charlie, 8, and daughter Sam, 10, were on hand. They have no memory of their Dad winning, their Dad being not only the best golfer there’s ever been when at his peak, but as good at golf as anyone’s ever been at anything.
As an athlete ages and they’ve held every trophy and cashed every cheque, the urge to show off for their kids is often the last thing on their to-do list. When Jack Nicklaus won the Masters, his final major, at age 46, he had his son caddying. Gordie Howe played hockey longer than anyone ever has in part because he was able to play with his sons at the end of his career and the beginning of theirs.
“I want them to see what I’ve been able to do my entire career,” Woods said before he teed off on his latest comeback.
This is Woods’ chance. He put on a show for them all week at the Bahamas, and proved on Sunday that there might be staying power.
It was an early Christmas present for his son, daughter and golf fans everywhere.