Woods, who hasn’t hit a ball competitively since last August as he recovered from two back surgeries, scrapped a planned return in this week’s Safeway Open on the PGA Tour and also dropped a scheduled appearance in the upcoming Turkish Airlines Open on the European Tour.
He said that his “game is vulnerable and not where it needs to be” but will “continue to work hard” in the hope that he can return in the Hero World Challenge, his foundation’s event, in the Bahamas in early December.
“Tiger is going to come back at some stage and I thought this was it,” said Lyle, speaking at Panmure before teeing off in the first round of the World Hickory Open. “I’m surprised that he has pulled out of this event at the last minute, but only he knows if his back is not 100 per cent.
“Vulnerable? Well, he has to be because he hasn’t played any tournament golf for quite some time [the Wyndham Championship on the PGA Tour around 14 months ago]. He’s such a strong-minded man, but it is hard to tell if he can produce the scores he did as it is very tough to come back from a long lay-off.”
Lyle said that the only other time he could remember one of the game’s leading players being in the same position as Woods in terms of ending up fearful about playing was the spectacular collapse of Ian Baker-Finch’s career.
The Australian won the 1991 Open Championship, closing with rounds of 64 and 66 at Royal Birkdale, only to quickly lose his confidence thereafter. He famously drove out of bounds at the first on the Old Course at St Andrews in the 1995 Open, either withdrew after one round or was disqualified in all 29 PGA Tour events he entered in 1995 and 1996 before running up a disastrous 92 in the first round of the 1997 Open at Royal Troon. He promptly withdrew and later admitted that he’d cried in the locker-room before leaving the Ayrshire course.
“The only one that comes to mind is Ian Baker-Finch,” said Lyle. “He went from just winning The Open to playing like a clown on the golf course. He couldn’t even break 80. Technically, he had quite a good swing and worked away at his game and was quite a good natured person.
“But somehow something leaked into his brain. Someone either said something or he started to doubt himself and he couldn’t get rid of that doubt. Doubt is a terrible thing to have. Tiger didn’t used to have any doubts or think about losing. He had a strong mind. He didn’t used to hit a 3-iron and wonder where it was going. He knew exactly where he wanted to hit it and did more often than not.”
Woods has apologised to the Safeway Open organisers, as well as the fans who were heading to Silverado Country Club in Napa hoping to see him back on a golf course, but Lyle believes the decision to delay his comeback is only going to intensify the spotlight on him when he eventually returns.
“He’s under the microscope all the time and part of the reason for that, of course, is him trying to break Jack Nicklaus’ record,” said the two-time major winner. “But he’d take any win right now just to prove to himself that he can still do it. I honestly didn’t think that winning some of the events by the big margins he did at the peak of his career was possible due to all the great players that were around then. If you compare it to athletics, it’s like Usain Bolt winning the 100 metres by 40 yards. You wouldn’t think that is possible but, in golf terms, that’s exactly what Tiger did back then.
“He’s made golf cool for all the youngsters. I remember when we used to be shown the TV ratings and there was always a huge dip when Tiger missed a cut. He has a bigger impact than Tiger himself sometimes realises. But he’s not going to be sitting around on the couch watching television. He’s a worker. And, when he does come back, he’ll want to be as near as he possibly can to being 100 per cent ready.”