Tiger Woods and Roger Federer always seem to end up in the same conversation.
Once it was all good, with Woods journeying to Wimbledon to watch Federer play and cheer him on. They were pals, seemingly. They were also both believed by many to be the best players in the history of their respective sports. Woods was chasing Jack Nicklaus for the most majors ever won by a golfer, and Federer was in hot pursuit of Pete Sampras and his record of 15 Grand Slam singles titles.
That all ended, at least publicly, when Woods’s infamous problems began with a collision between his Cadillac Escalade and a fire hydrant in 2009, and he became persona non grata for a time around the sports world. Federer kept playing and kept winning, had not one but two sets of twins with his wife, Mirka, and generally became a model for what a sportsman should be.
Woods kept trying to play and trying to win, but his personal problems intersected with all kinds of health issues. By 2015, seven years removed from his last major at the 2008 U.S. Open, his career really hit the skids with serious back problems that forced him from the PGA Tour.
In late 2016, he tried to come back, and returned at the 2017 Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego. He missed the cut, pulled out of a Dubai event the following week and several months later underwent another round of back surgery.
Federer, meanwhile, had suffered a knee injury in a five-set loss to Canadian Milos Raonic at the 2016 Wimbledon tournament, and skipped the remainder of the ’16 tennis season trying to recuperate. The same weekend Woods was missing the cut at Torrey Pines, Federer returned to the ATP tour in triumph, winning the Australian Open over longtime rival Rafael Nadal. He went on to win Wimbledon again six months later for his 19th Grand Slam victory.
This past weekend, Federer again defied the odds by winning his sixth Aussie Open singles title.
“The fairytale continues,” he said in a teary victory speech.
While Federer was stunning the experts last year, Woods was stubbornly plotting yet another comeback attempt, with his critics doubting he could ever be remotely competitive. He again returned to the PGA Tour this weekend at the Farmers Insurance Open. It wasn’t a fairytale, but the results were substantially better.
If you go by the scorecard, Tiger was a moderate success in his first 72-hole PGA performance in 2 1/2 years with rounds of 72-71-70-72 to finish in a tie for 23rd place. He had to hustle to barely make the cut, and had problems keeping the ball in play, hitting only 17 of 56 fairways in the four rounds of competition, tying his lowest career total. But his putting was good and his short game was razor sharp.
“I’m very pleased,” he said. “I worked hard for those scores.”
Meanwhile, if you went by the crowds, his return was a massive success. As Federer was defeating Marin Cilic in Melbourne, massive galleries were following Woods, the kinds of galleries at non-major events the tour simply had not seen since Woods had gone from the tour.
The Aussie Open would have had spectacular attendance with or without Federer, and indeed, had record crowds even with stars like Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori missing from this year’s competition with injuries.
The golf world, however, knows very well there is a tour with Tiger, and one without him, and they are very, very different things. Woods’s mere presence produces must-see television and the kind of excitement stars like Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Justin Thomas simply have not been able to generate.
Tennis had a taste of life without Federer for the final six months of 2016. He wasn’t gone long enough for his absence to be measurable, but his return has shown the tour is much richer with him than without him.
Golf needs Woods more, much more, than tennis needs Federer. The question becomes whether he can in any way, shape or form generate the same competitive results at 42 that Federer had been able to produce over the past year at age 36.
His performance at Torrey Pines received mix reviews, although all were united in the belief that he showed no ill effects from the wide variety of surgeries that have slowed his career.
“Last year, he looked like an old 41. This year, he looks like a young 42,” said one analyst.
His inability to keep the ball on the fairway was noted repeatedly, although the distance was there. So maybe it was as much about timing and rust as what Woods may actually be capable of this season off the tee.
Like Federer, this does come down to defying age. Of the top 10 players in the world, only Sergio Garcia (38) and Henrik Stenson (41) are Woods contemporaries. Both won majors in the past two years.
Woods talked after finishing the tournament how he went into the day thinking that if he got hot and shot 65, he might be able the challenge the leaders. So he’s clearly not just thinking about being decent out there. He’s thinking about winning.
In two weeks, he’s scheduled to compete at Riviera, and then the big test will of course be the Masters in April. Nothing we saw from Woods on the weekend suggested he definitely can’t compete at Augusta, although there’s lots that needs tightening up.
Few believed Federer was capable of returning from his knee woes to win another Grand Slam tournament, let alone three more. In fact, he seem stalled at 17, and went 4 1/2 years without winning one of the tennis majors.
Few seem to believe Woods can win a tournament, let alone a major. His non-major drought is longer than Federer’s was, and his list of injuries is much longer and more serious.
The Swiss tennis superstar has, with his brilliance over the past year, ended any dispute there might have been that he is the greatest player in the history of his sport. Woods doesn’t have the overall numbers to make that statistical claim, but there are many who would argue that during his heyday he played the best golf that has ever been played by any man.
With 14 majors, catching Nicklaus (18) seems unthinkable. But if he can continue this current comeback, and if he can win one more of golf’s big prizes, he may still be able to lay claim to being the greatest in the history of the sport.
He’s got the wealth and all that money can buy. He has his foundation, and we can only assume, a more stable and happy personal life.
There is only his legacy to play for. And legacy can be a powerful force.
Woods can just ask his old pal Roger about that.