Tiger Woods’ delayed return will be his last chance saloon

14-time Major winner describes game as ‘vulnerable’ when postponing comeback

Tiger Woods has delayed his return to golf, and his comeback could be his final chance to return to former glories. Photograph: Afp

Tiger Woods has delayed his return to golf, and his comeback could be his final chance to return to former glories. Photograph: Afp

 

No sooner had Monday evening’s news been delivered than the conspiracy theories started. Tiger Woods, it was suggested, never had any intention of returning to competitive action either in California this week or Turkey next month; earlier assertions to the contrary had been linked to some wider commercial plan. The fact so much of Woods’s life is shrouded in deep secrecy only fuels such theories.

For once, this sceptical thought process does not actually make any sense. For all Woods may be fond of the dollar signs he can attach to his name, the scale of reputational damage attached to announcing a comeback after 15 months of on-course absence before stating he does not regard his golf as of sufficient standard to appear is huge. Even the notion that he was paid a fee simply for stating he would feature in the Turkish Airlines Open does not come close to offsetting what happened next. For Woods, not least in terms of public perception, this is nothing other than a serious setback.

Had Woods pointed towards an issue with his back and, perhaps, the taking of added precautions upon medical advice as a reason to kick his return into the long grass, there would have been questions as to whether his fitness would ever be of a level where competing again is a reality. There would also have been widespread nods of understanding.

Instead Woods – he of 79 PGA Tour wins including 14 majors – highlighted a “vulnerable” golf game. The player once so unwilling to pinpoint personal weakness to the point where he may genuinely have thought himself infallible, is now telling the world that he would most likely embarrass himself in tournament play. A man who as recently as the 2013 Masters boasted about the ability to play an approach shot two yards differently to the one before is now conjuring visions of shanks and duffs. If that seems an exaggeration, Woods’s second round of 82 at last year’s Phoenix Open is a decent reference point.

If this is deep-rooted performance anxiety, that is highly serious. If Woods’s golf is broken to the point where either yips are apparent or it has to be completely rebuilt, the same grim outlook applies. Woods seemed to be an important figure to the USA team at the Ryder Cup, where he was a vice-captain, but didn’t move with the same ease or when carrying the same aura as once before. Something has changed, albeit gradually rather than swiftly.

Two aspects of this scene are unique to Woods. Firstly, every shot of every tournament he played was scrutinised even before the injury and form woes which have ruined his last three years. When trying to recapture even some of his past greatness, the level of attention placed on him means errors will be amplified tenfold. The Catch 22 here is that the only way Woods can become competitive again is by sampling tournament golf.

The other pertinent aspect relates to this golfer’s character. Whereas others returning from multiple back surgeries might be content to float around the midriff of PGA Tour events, Woods’s ferocious competitive instinct could never legitimately be toned down. Turning up at any event with no aspiration whatsoever of winning, regardless of backdrop, would seem pointless. Aligning this lifelong approach with current circumstances represents a massive psychological challenge for him.

Aspects of Monday’s announcement were strange. Woods had only formally entered the Safeway Open on Friday, his manager Mark Steinberg revealing that he had subsequently travelled to California to undergo intense warmup work.

“When he ramped it up the past few days, hole by hole he realised his game was just not responding in the way he wanted it to,” Steinberg said. This is not a 14-year-old cramming for a physics exam. It is legitimate to ask what precisely changed over the tiny timeframe of a weekend in context of Woods’s longer absence.

Even more curiously, Steinberg insisted Woods was not taking part in Turkey out of “respect for the PGA Tour”. The agent said his client did not feel it “appropriate” to restart his career outside of the United States. Whilst there is sympathy due towards the people who bought tickets for the Safeway Open in expectation that Woods would turn up, the actual location for his next appearance is surely irrelevant. When able to play, he has to, whether in San Diego or San Marino. The PGA Tour has benefitted more than enough from Woods’s status to be chippy about his schedule.

As Woods will know only too well, there cannot be continued comebacks. This, bluntly and whenever it arrives, will be his final tilt at adding to the roll of honour which established him as one of his sport’s all-time greats. For that reason, perhaps the erring on the side of caution is a sensible move. What cannot be understated, though, is how serious a predicament Woods remains in. His own terminology offers proof of that.

(Guardian service)

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