Tiger Woods' last chapter has a chance to be his best one yet
Woods' return to golf could be the start of a special final decade for one of the sport's all-time greats
Think about this: Since Tiger Woods dumped three shots in the water at Congressional earlier this summer, we have seen Anthony Kim hit more shots than Woods. Anthony Kim! Woods has stressed all year that he was going to take his time, stay patient and come back when he was ready.
Finally, this week, we will see him. His return at the Hero World Challenge comes after a 15-month absence following two back surgeries last fall, which were his second and third procedures in the same spot on his back. The last time we saw him was at the 2015 Wyndham Championship where he very nearly won. He said he was going to start at the Safeway Open in October, but pulled out because his game was "vulnerable."
"As hard as it was on me to take it off and pull out of the event, it was a smart thing to do even though as a competitive athlete it killed me inside," Woods said Tuesday in the Bahamas at the Hero World Challenge. "I wanted to compete. I felt like I was ready to compete because, as I said, I've played with less and I've won. But if I've waited at the time, what, 13 months, what's another couple more months. So let's be a little patient, a little easier on myself, a little smarter, and let's come back when things are a little more together."
Woods' return to golf is exciting in obvious ways but also in ways that are not totally clear yet but will come into focus as Woods (hopefully) descends into that last, long ride on the PGA Tour. There are no delusions about what to expect here. Woods will never break Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors. That ship has sailed and is several hundred miles out at sea. Woods will likely never even win another major. He will struggle to win again at all.
"It will be a new chapter," Tiger's pal, Notah Begay, said recently. "Just like 1996 was the beginning, this is going to be the beginning of a new chapter for Tiger Woods, and probably his last. He understands that he's much closer to the end of his career than the beginning and that if he has another injury and has to sustain another rehabilitation period that he might not make it back."
This is a sobering reality. This will be Woods' last stand, and nobody knows how long it will last. Not even Tiger.
"Would I like to play a full schedule every year for the next decade plus? Yeah, I would, that would be great," Woods said Monday. "Can I? I don't know. We'll see. I'm going to do everything I can. ... I can't play this game forever at a competitive, high level. Would I love to? Yes. Guys have played into their 70s and 80s, but they're not competing at a world‑class level. You can still play golf for a lifetime and I want to play golf for a lifetime, but also I know I can't compete out here for a lifetime."
Phil Mickelson seems an odd place to start when it comes to talking about the end of Tiger Woods' career. It is fitting that they play opposite-handed, those two. They are different in nearly every way. Mickelson is the gregarious, possibly insane, fun-loving dad of modern American golf. His game has aged like his beloved Merlots. He fancies himself alternative medicine connoisseur and the greatest chipper of all time. It sometimes feels like he could play forever.
Woods comparatively plays a more intense game. His swing was always a thrill to experience, but it also always screamed of a late-career breakdown. Nobody -- and no body, for that matter -- can handle that much torque. His star shone brighter, sometimes far brighter, than Mickelson's, but it also burned more quickly. Woods has not felt like he would play forever since slaying Rocco Mediate on one knee at the 2008 U.S. Open. His career since then has been a series of starts and stops. Like something out of a Three Stooges sketch involving a car and a clown.
I cannot help but think of Mickelson during Woods' comeback after a 15-month absence from the PGA Tour. After the three back surgeries. After countless interviews about when in the world he was going to tee it up again, about whether he would ever tee it up again at all.
Mickelson is six years Woods' elder. The past six years of Mickelson's career have been an absolute delight. There was the British Open win in 2013, and the outrageous show he gave us at that same event this year. There were five runner-up finishes, one at every major. There were three Ryder Cup appearances, countless thumbs up and a sense that, if Mickelson can win at 42 or 45 or 46, maybe he can do it for 10-15 more years.
Arnold Palmer's death this fall snapped everyone in golf back into the reality that time marches like an unremitting soldier. It stops for no man. It is unforgiving and unrelenting. The best we can do as humans is create the illusion of a pause in its presence. It eventually swallows us whole. That's what Mickelson has done over the past half decade, and it has been so enjoyable. He has only won four times since 2011, but it's not really about winning at this point when it comes to the way we watch Lefty, is it?
It's about seeing if you still have the goods. It's about playing twice a year at a level beyond where you used to play 20 times a season. It's about, as my pal Kevin Van Valkenburg recently said, making a run at the Masters and reminding those of us who are getting older (all of us) what it was like to be 22 and have your entire life in front of you. It's about dipping backwards into time and unearthing a string of glittering memories and bringing them into the present.
If Mickelson has done this, and I believe he has, then Woods has the ability to perfect it. Can you imagine Woods winning Torrey Pines at age 43? Woods looking into Jordan Spieth's eyes on the first tee on a Sunday at Augusta when he's 45 and wondering if he still has the stuff to take down the Golden Child? Woods, at age 46, paired together with Rory McIlroy for the final round of an Open, both of them five shots clear of the rest of the field?
It would matter little if he ever won another major. Just to feel something grandiose like he once provided would be worth every minute of practice, every putt in the Florida heat. It would be worth it for his fans to have sat through so many weeks and months and years of inactivity just to feel that seed of joy planted once again and sprung to life in a late-tournament club twirl or a walk-off birdie to get into the final pairing at a major.
It would be worth it to us. The big question for Woods, who will be less than a month shy of his 41st birthday when he returns on Thursday, is whether it's worth it to him. It seems like it is. He said as much when he was asked about being a Ryder Cup captain this week. It became clear that he did not want to be done playing in Ryder Cups.
"I would be honored to be selected as a Ryder Cup captain," Woods said. "But it's not going to be for a while. I know that next year I'm hoping to be a playing assistant. I was hoping to be a playing assistant this year, too. Didn't quite work out that way. I would like to play as an assistant, that would be fun. And then ultimately one day the whole idea of setting up the Ryder Cup and why we had the committee is so that we can have continuity going forward. There was one piece of advice I've gotten from virtually every captain I've talked to, is don't become captain unless your career is almost done ... because it's two years of sacrificing of your life to do it your way and you have so many obligations and so many things that it takes away from you competing."
We are a long way from future glory, though. Woods will return at the height of football season in as inconspicuous a manner within the sports world as Tiger Woods can possibly do anything. He will try and rekindle something. He will try and lay a foundation for a future that could hold so many special moments. He is capable, of course, of anything. His brain has been rewired over two decades to decipher any golf course, most importantly the ones consistently played on the PGA Tour. He is smarter than almost every golfer alive. More importantly, he is also wiser.
So now we look only to his embattled body, that lithe, sinewy reed that conquered so much in so little time. If it holds, we could be in for a special decade -- a Mickelsonian run. If it doesn't, Woods will likely be discarded where so many sports stars are discarded: remembered only in YouTube clips and oral histories. He will move on to his new company TGR and try to rattle different frontiers. Horizons that will not thrill us the way golf does.
If his body holds, this week could be step one towards what could be the most fascinating final chapter for an athlete in history. Tiger played in the third-to-last pairing on a Sunday at Augusta last year. He has won more recently than Mickelson. The tank is not empty. If it holds, Woods has a chance to do what only Woods can do: dip us deeply into a past he created and baptize us into a future only he can shape. This might be the end for Tiger, but hopefully it's just a new beginning.
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