It’s quite comical actually to think that the world No 898 – yes, that’s how low the long-time No 1 has slipped during his absence – can send people into a frenzy, but Woods still has that effect and, in fairness, he earned it through the incredible impact he had on the game at the peak of his career.
That, alas, now seems a long time ago and please let’s remember that at the outset in terms of what we can expect to see from Tiger this week in respect of a performance. By the time he steps on the first tee on Thursday, a total of 466 days will have passed since he last hit a ball in anger on a golf course. While that would definitely appear to seem sufficient time to have allowed him to a) recuperate and b) get himself golf ready following the two back surgeries he underwent around a year ago, we won’t know for certain until it is tested in the heat of competition.
What has made this week all the more fascinating, of course, is that Woods appeared to take stage fright when he was scheduled to return in the Safeway Open in mid-October. He committed to that event on the Friday only to pull out on the Monday. No matter what way you look at it, that wasn’t a good sign. It made a mockery of comments made by the likes of Jesper Parnevik.
“I see Tiger at the Medalist [Golf Club in South Florida],” said the Swede. “We’ve played nine holes together. He’s pounding it a mile and flushing everything … his trajectory and ball flight are like the Tiger we knew 15 years ago. Comebacks are never a sure thing, but something tells me his might be spectacular.”
Really? Woods finished 10th in his last appearance in the Wyndham Championship, an effort that had been set up by an opening 64. Three of his five events prior to that had resulted in early exits from the US Open, the Open Championship and the US PGA Championship. He’d become a shadow of the old Tiger and why on earth should we think he’s capable of the “spectacular” any more?
His last win was in 2013; his last major victory was back in 2008. Forget about him getting to 18 majors to match Jack Nicklaus for that haul because that simply isn’t going to happen now. Woods is 41 on his next birthday and no-one, not even Tiger, can defy Old Father Time. If he lands one more major, it will be one of the greatest achievements of his career.
“I really hope he comes back well, but it’s going to be tough,” observed Nick Dougherty, who describes playing with Woods in the third round of the 2007 US Open at Oakmont as his “best day in golf” and that’s coming from someone who recorded one of his three European Tour triumphs at St Andrews in the 2007 Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.
“It’s a long time away and, of course, we all expect so much. I mean people were even talking about him getting one of the USA’s wild card picks and I thought ‘oh my God, give the guy a chance’. I’m a massive Tiger fan so I really hope that he’s good, but I don’t want to watch Tiger come back and play like he’s played the last couple of years.”
The person who will need to be convinced most about expectations being realistic, of course, is Woods himself. When you were once as dominant as he was, it’s easy to see why you feel that anything is possible. It’s been a long time, however, since Woods stepped out onto the golf course with the game that used to intimidate rivals. Before his lay-off, he’d become very crooked with a driver in his hands and let’s not forget that he’d developed chipping yips.
Yes, of course, it will be great to see him back, but only if he’s able to give a decent account of himself. In an 18-man field this week, he doesn’t need to worry at least about missing the cut. Respectability, in truth, is the best he can hope for and even that will take conquering apprehension. “Yes, I’m nervous,” Woods told USA Today’s Steve DiMeglio in the build up to $3.5 million event. “I’m nervous for every tournament I play in, whether it’s after a lay-off, or six in a row, or a major. I care. If I care, I’m nervous. And it’s good to be that way. To have that nervous energy and channel it, into aggression, into focus, into concentration, that’s good stuff. If I wasn’t nervous, that would mean I didn’t care. I don’t want to be out there flat. I want to be out here so bad. And now I am.”
Like it or not, it’s exciting for golf that Woods is about to be back playing. With all due respect to Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson, they don’t come close to Tiger when it comes to generating interest, especially in the United States. Every shot will be scrutinised more than ever this week, but that, I’m afraid, comes with the territory when you are Tiger Woods. Let’s not be daft here, though, and expect too much. Give the guy a chance.