Golf world holds its breath at first signs of a Tiger stirring

Is the multiple-Major winner really about to produce the unlikeliest of second comings?

Tiger Woods  walks off of the 18th green after his return to competitive action during the first round of the Hero World Challenge at Albany, Bahamas. Photograph:  Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Tiger Woods walks off of the 18th green after his return to competitive action during the first round of the Hero World Challenge at Albany, Bahamas. Photograph: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

 

Golf is a numbers game and of all the numbers associated with Tiger Woods – the staggering prize money, the Majors, the tournament streaks, the unbroken years as da man – nothing speaks so powerfully about his present state of grace as his world ranking at the start of this week.

Tiger Woods, arguably the best golfer the world has seen, was officially estimated as the 1,199th in the world as he embarked upon his comeback.

It’s a distortion, of course, brought about by his 10-month absence and the surgery which, he believes, has ended years of physical and mental torture of back pain caused by a lifetime of hitting golf balls with all the power and accuracy his body could muster.

But it’s still hard to get your head around the fact that the golfer who changed the game could have fallen so far. The ranking system has always been one of golf’s delicious cruelties. Every so often, a star – a David Duval or a John Daly – streaks across the cloudless skies where the prestige tournaments are played and they manage to synchronise both the granite mental toughness and technical flawlessness long enough to win a Major or two and to briefly be the talk of the town.

Then something goes wrong; they tinker with their putter or decide to change their grip or lose their nerve on the putting greens and they slip and then plummet down the rankings until they are way past the young up-and-comers and the career obscurants. And they know they will probably never recapture that moment, that feeling, of lining up a ball up on the 18th with, say, a 12-foot three-putt needed to secure an Open or a Masters.

It’s almost forgotten now that, for a short period in the late 1990s, Duval managed to displace the then ascendant Woods as the number one ranked golfer on planet earth. He was a spiky personality with a whipcord swing and huge wraparound shades who gobbled up tournaments during a blistering three-year period which culminated in the Open win of 2001.

Golf’s most feared figure suddenly looked pitiful and the game turned to its younger cast

Then he began to develop vertebrae trouble and that autumn, it just stopped. Whatever that combination of talent, self-belief, magic, karma, physical wellbeing is called, it began to leave him. In 2005, Duval entered 20 tournaments and picked up a grand total of $7,000 in prize money.

His decline as a sportsman would be a haunting story except for the fact that Duval has emerged from the game as a more contented figure than he had been when he lit up fairways and now works as an analyst for the Golf Channel.

But it was the temporality of golfers like Duval and Lee Westwood that made Woods appear so bullet-proof in comparison. When it all fell apart and Woods had to endure the humiliation of having his personal life transformed into a gaudy source of global gossip and scandal; when the sponsors duly fled and he was forced to make that weird televised apology to, it seemed, the entire world and when the once-unstoppable march to catching the Golden Bear Jack Nicklaus’s haul of 18 Majors (a figure that is beginning to look untouchable) abruptly halted, Woods looked, for the first time, lost.

Golf’s most feared figure suddenly looked pitiful and the game turned to its younger cast– the Jordans and the Rorys and the Jasons – to create a newer more likeable and more millennial set of on-course excellence and clubhouse story lines.

It will be 21 years this Christmas since Gary Smith’s famous piece about Woods, The Chosen One, was published in Sports Illustrated. Even now it is un-put-down-able because of its pure strangeness: when your old man has announced to the world that as well as being the best golfer the world has seen you might also just be the Second Coming, then chances are you are under a fair bit of pressure. Exerting absolute control on his image and perfecting that cold, superior exterior was Woods’s way of presenting himself to the world. It worked until it didn’t.

Two years ago, Wright Thompson of ESPN wrote the companion piece to The Chosen One except that now Earl Woods is dead and Tiger is lost and what’s presented is desperately sad and lonely. Of course, these are just pieces of journalism; research and interview and supposition and killer closing paragraphs and the rest. Just writing, in other words. How close those words come to touching the real person is simply guesswork.

But it’s clear that, after two decades, neither golf nor society is fully certain what Tiger Woods is supposed to represent.

For sure, he is always going to be a contrary figure. As Dave Hannigan outlined in this publication on Thursday, his decision to play golf with Donald Trump was interpreted as a grave insult to African-Americans and remains baffling.

He must have predicted that there would be a backlash and yet, there he was. Earl Woods and, of course, Nike, presented Tiger as a champion of racial equality in the beginning. It took years and years for everyone, including Woods, to figure out that he was more Rabbit Angstrom than Muhammad Ali. And he was never forgiven for that.

The golf feeds are buzzy with breathless talk that the Big Cat, after the fall and the humbling, may be back

It could be that after everything Woods has learned to simply not care about what the world thinks of him. His faults and misdemeanours have been held up, scrutinised and vilified countless times again. His imperiousness on the golf course has been reimagined with a tint of tragedy. It was only last May that the Florida police released a mug-shot taken of Woods under arrest for suspected DUI.

It spun around the globe within minutes and was instantly repackaged and reissued as irrefutable proof that his fall from grace and greatness was complete and irrecoverable. The inconvenient truth – that he hadn’t even been drinking that night – generated less online excitement.

Insofar as the world at large even cares about Tiger Woods anymore, people have probably made their minds up as to what they think of the person. Anyone who wants to dismiss him as a mere jerk has a freight ship of information to go on.

The strange thing is that after everything, after 20 years, all that’s left to talk about is what Tiger Woods can or can’t do on the golf course. Stephen Curry, a contemporary sports superstar, a conscientious objector to the Trump administration, a model citizen, was among those who trumpeted, via Twitter, his excitement at the return of Woods: The wait is over. The wait is over.

It drives golf’s aficionados up the wall but the truth is that in the decade since Woods stopped winning Majors and slid out of relevance, so too did the game’s appeal recede in the eyes of casual fans. It’s not the game’s fault. Woods was such a magnetic dominant figure that asking another human being to somehow project a similar presence was unreasonable. And impossible.

So here is Tiger Woods, about to hit his 42nd year (with financial security that will last beyond his lifetime and his legacy in the game secure if locked in the past) ready to start from scratch in the hope that his children might, however fleetingly, get to see him do what he could once do better than anyone else alive. Already, as he plays in his first comeback tournament, his odds to win next year’s Masters have been halved.

The golf feeds are buzzy with breathless talk that the Big Cat, after the fall and the humbling, may be back: that it may be the second coming nobody ever reckoned on.

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