If 2018 taught us anything, it is that Tiger Woods moves the needle like no other in golf, period. Yet amid the corybantic afterglow of his electrifying comeback year, it is easy to forget the low ebb the 14-time major champion found himself at entering last year. As a non-playing vice-captain in the most recent Presidents Cup, Woods cut a forlorn, woebegone figure, often grimacing in pain as he moved in and out of his golf buggy and even when merely standing still for several minutes.
At the same tournament, he remarked how he may never play competitive golf again such was the severity of the smarting in his lower back. Though the American was several months removed from a successful microdiscectomy, it was the barrage of injuries and surgeries over the years that were now evidently, and regrettably taking their toll.
His once Messianic aura was receding about as rapidly as his hairline; a highly publicised arrest that year accompanied by an ignominious mugshot of a somnolent Woods led to a torrent of pity more so than anger, a feeling of not kicking a man while he was already down pervaded. Toxicology tests showed the presence in his bloodstream of two painkillers, a sleeping pill, an anti-anxiety drug and the active ingredient in marijuana. At this juncture, the hankering for Woods was not about getting his golf game back on track, but simply to piece together some semblance of a normal, pain-free life again. Such was the extent of his lower back pain, sleeping and getting out of bed unaided were a struggle- playing with his kids was out of the question. Down as low as 1,199th in the world rankings, the golfing world winced as for months it was fed footage of surely the greatest player to swing a club restricted to tentative 60-yard punch shots where once he had slashed at the ball with ferocious force and torque. Here was a man in emotional turmoil trapped inside a body which prevented him from pursuing a talent the game of golf had never known before. How then, in the space of a few months, did this hapless figure transform into a Tour winner regularly competing for Major championships again?
In Woods’ previous comebacks, of which there have been many, there was always a sense that he was rushing back to action too soon. As a fierce competitor, this was only natural for him. Yet, with this short-term approach, his next injury invariably seemed to be just around the corner. The pressure to surpass Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 major hauls, was probably chief among the reasons for such hasty returns. This time, however, Woods followed a different tack, opting for once to allow his body to fully heal itself and not play on Tour until he was unquestionably fully fit. The eagerness to return burned strong, yet Big Cat waited and waited and then, waited some more. Woods made his return in December 2017 after more than 9 months out. That an end-of-year silly-season tournament became among the most watched that year revealed just how much the sport had missed him. Golf’s ‘Prodigal Son’ had returned and the week was deemed a huge success merely because he had completed all four rounds. Such was his fall from grace, this was to be the new benchmark for the greatest player of modern times. Moreover, when Rory McIlroy remarked after a friendly round a few weeks later that Tiger should be considered among the top 5 contenders for the next Masters, his comments were widely derided by the golfing community.
Woods’ first couple of tournaments marked steady progress if not laudable headway, but it was at the Valspar Championship in March where the Californian impressed by finishing tied second and contending deep into the latter stages of the tournament. It felt like the old Tiger was back again, with the crowds and viewing figures reflecting this most unexpected rebirth. His ball striking was supreme and his short game looked as good as ever; the only missing piece of the puzzle was his misbehaving driver. The new swing Woods had built to accommodate his half-crippled body was quite different for longer shots than before. Understandably, this was the part of his game which would take the longest to come around.
Further progress was made over the next few months, as Woods began rising inexorably up the world rankings. He flirted with a first win in five years on a few occasions, but piecing together all the elements of his game simultaneously was proving problematic. With his long game now in much better shape, his putting began to desert him as the summer season dawned. It is a testament to his incredible golfing prowess that with a makeshift swing, a mangled back and at best his C game, Woods could still compete with the best in the business. And while Woods relinquished a back nine lead at The Open, and came up just shy at the USPGA a couple of weeks later, his charge captivated audiences in a way not seen since his heyday. Only Eldrick can engender such fervid affection. The raucous roars of ‘Tiger, Tiger’ which reverberated around the golf course were reminiscent of a rumbustious football game.
It felt only a matter of time before Woods won again, and fittingly it came at East Lake in the final event of the season. Seeing off 18 of the world’s top 20, the crowds embraced Woods with an incredible outpouring of affection, memorably following him down the final fairway like The Pied Piper. Despite his many character flaws, he is unquestionably ‘The People’s Champion.’ Woods’ 80th Tour win added distinction to a remarkable comeback year, ended a five-year drought as well as catapulting him back into the world’s top 20.
The prospects for 2019 are promising. Having just turned 43, Woods still has time somewhat on his side and his commitment to a reduced playing schedule augurs well. Surpassing Sam Snead’s record 82 PGA Tour victories seems a realistic target this year; moving a step closer to Nicklaus’ major haul will be more difficult given the now much stiffer competition than when Woods reigned supreme in the early 2000s. The US Open at Pebble Beach surely represents his best shot at one of the four big titles this year; the tight course setup (which eliminates his erratic driver on most holes) coupled with his unrivalled track record on the course rightly makes Woods among the bookmaker’s favourites. To even be talking about the American in this manner is truly splendid for the game. The Tiger roar is back. How sorely golf missed it.
By Neil Stokes – Sports Writer