On the mend from his fourth back surgery, Tiger Woods has returned to the golf stage this week, albeit in a supporting role, for the first time since being arrested in May and charged with driving under the influence. Woods, who has played one official PGA Tour tournament in two years looked healthy and sounded happy about where he was at in his latest comeback. He described his return to competitive golf as “a process” and added, “I’m in no hurry.”
“We’d love to see him back playing,” said Brooks Koepka, the reigning U.S. Open champion. “I think everyone would be crazy if they didn’t say that. I think he’s good for the game. He’s good for the sport.” Woods spent a record 683 weeks as the world No. 1. The more success he achieved, the less contact he had with anyone outside his innermost circle. It was his coping mechanism, a way to remain whole when everybody wanted a piece of him.
The back injury set Woods back, isolating him from the community of players that might have provided support. Captain Steve Stricker recognized this and why he reached out to Woods to become an assistant captain, like at last year’s Ryder Cup. Stricker intuited that Woods would get as much, if not more, from this week as the young golfers he was mentoring. “This is a two-way street,” he said. Woods weathered bad stretches – weeks where his back hurt so much when he tried to drive a car or a cart that he did not think he would be able to be a part of this week’s event. He obliquely referenced his misuse of pain medications, allowing that he faced challenges “not just for this tournament but for life going forward. But that’s all gone now,” he added.
Woods, ranked 1,142 in the world, was asked if he believed he could become No. 1 again if he regained a physical good health. “Is anybody in here who is in his 40s ever going to feel like he did in his 20s?” he said. “I don’t know what 100% means after eight surgeries.” Asked if he could imagine not returning to competitive golf, Woods said: “Yeah, definitely. I don’t know what my future holds.” Next Captain for the 2019 Presidents Cup in Australia, facing the revenge of the internationals after their New York disaster (19/11).
After 79 PGA Tour titles, including 14 majors, and at least eight surgeries, what more does Woods need from competitive golf? “You know, I’ve been competing in golf tournaments since I was 4 years old. From pitch, putt and drive to playing major championships, it’s always been fun to me.”
Daniel Berger, a Presidents Cup rookie, said, “There’s a presence when you’re around him. You can feel something in the air, and it’s just cool to be a part of that.” Rickie Fowler said: “He loves us so much, which to me is really cool and inspiring. Because for him to not be playing, as competitive as he is, and to be this involved and want us to feel as comfortable as we can be, and to want us to play as well as we possibly can, it means a lot, and it give us a lot of, I guess, positive vibes.”
For someone who spent nearly 20 years as golf’s leading man, Woods seems well cast in his supporting role. “It’s interesting to me,” said Brandel Chamblee, the Golf Channel analyst, “because he used to psychologically destroy people. Now he is there to psychologically boost people. And it’s possible that he’s going to be just as good at boosting the morale of people as he was at destroying it.” Karen Crouse