He remains the top pick in any hacker’s fantasy fourball, so when Donald Trump fancies a quick 18 holes, who’s he gonna call? “Hey Tiger, it’s the President of the United States, here. You busy tomorrow?”
The coming together of the world’s most powerful man and arguably the most significant figure in the history of golf glowed red across social media platforms. Sightings, video clips, Instagram shots flooded the ether as news agencies and sports networks scrambled to dissect the meaning of a round of golf at Trump National in Florida’s high-end barrio of Jupiter.
World no.1 Dustin Johnson and ex-PGA Tour vet Brad Faxon made up the group, with the latter partnering Mr. President and missing a nine-foot birdie putt at the last to ensure the match finished all square. Trump was conducting business during the Thanksgiving holiday period from his Florida estate in nearby Mar-a-Lago. Before heading up to Jupiter, he held Middle East peace discussions over the phone with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as you do, and while there was interest in their exchange in some quarters, the real juice was in Tiger’s re-entry into golf’s atmosphere.
Woods, who contests his first tournament since February when he lines up in his own tournament this week, the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, claims to be in better shape than at any time in the past three years following the latest surgery last April to cure a back problem that has required four interventions. That three previous operations failed, demonstrates not only the fragile nature of his disc issue but the poverty of medical provision to treat lower lumbar injury.
Woods went into theatre for the first time a week before the Masters three years ago. Two more operations followed within a month of each other in the autumn of 2015 which kept him off the course for 15 months. His comeback at this very tournament a year ago saw him rack up a total of 24 birdies, the highest in the 18-man field but he finished ahead of only two players. He missed the cut at his next tournament, Torrey Pines in January this year, and withdrew after one round of the Desert Classic in Dubai with back spasms.
So before we go galloping ahead full tilt with insane expectations, let’s remember we are talking about a man who turns 42 before Christmas, who before he was wheeled into theatre for the back operations, he had as many surgeries on his left knee. Oh wait, too late. The golfing telegraph is already awash with celebration.
The Jupiter boys, led by Rickie Fowler and Johnson, plus Jason Day, have clapped him back to the tee. Faxon was moved to write an account of last week’s match in which he proclaimed a pain-free Tiger swinging the club with conviction and attitude. After practice in Albany this week Patrick Reed reported how far past his ball Tiger’s was flying. At this rate, he could be favourite for the Masters come Sunday.
Perhaps all this mushy love it is to be expected. Such is the scale of the swag won in the most prolific period of plunder in the history of golf, none is really ready to let the legend of Woods go. Even though nine years have passed since he won his 14th and last major at the age of 31, even though technology has endowed the new generation with the same power game he patented at the back end of the last century, we still believe in the Woods resurrection. If anybody can defy the laws of nature, stop the clock, stripe the ball like he did in his prime, it is Woods, so the dream goes.
The Tiger stats are so hot they scorch the page. Here are a few to remind us just how special he was. Between 1999 and 2002 Woods won an unprecedented seven of 11 majors contested. Of his 79 PGA Tour titles, 46 come in his 20s, 16 more than Jack Nicklaus managed before his 30th birthday. Of his contemporaries currently 40 or younger Zach Johnson comes in second with 12 tour wins.
Woods spent 683 weeks as world no.1, 352 weeks more than Greg Norman in second. Woods completed his career grand slam at 24. In the past half-century, only five others have won a major by that age. And he is the only player to hold all four majors consecutively. Woods has won five times on the spin on three occasions, precisely three more times than any other in the past 60 years.
Perhaps the most impressive stat of all, Woods has missed only 15 cuts in his career. In a seven-year stretch from 1998 to 2005, he went a record 142 consecutive PGA Tour events without an early bath, smashing Byron Nelson’s mark of 113. Jack Nicklaus is third with 105. It says something about the mythology surrounding Woods that, for some at least, the 18 major mark set by Nicklaus is not considered absolutely out of reach.
For the less romantic among us, the idea that Woods might claim an 80th PGA title let alone another major is a stretch. There is simply insufficient medical evidence from lower back refugees to inform opinion. The ‘Woods is back’ tendency base their assumption on the memory of what he once was rather than the reduced specimen he is now.
A physique that once seemed unbreakable was ultimately unequal to the forces to which it was subjected. First his left knee buckled and then disintegrated as a consequence of that whiplash action. And then the revisions and adjustments made under a succession of different coaches did for his back, not to mention his touch, which at one point left him chunking balls from one side of the green to the other. The fourth operation in April this year, which involved the removal of one disc and the re-setting of another, must be seen as one last punt, for that is what it is.
The surgeon who opened up Woods, Dr. Richard Guyer of the Center for Disc Replacement at the Texas Back Institute, is as qualified as a man can be, but those he ordinarily sends back to the workplace are not smashing balls for a living, putting the kind of torque through the spine that would put a Ferrari on pole.
If nothing else the commentary surrounding the Woods comeback washes clean his most recent portfolio, which featured grim mug shots from the local slammer after being stopped by police at the wheel of his car whilst pumped full of prescription drugs. He might never be the golfer he was but in the blizzard of official photos this week neither will he be that desperate, narcotics-dependent victim arrested in May.
That bloated, sepia stare was the look of a man face planting rock bottom. It might be that this is just another fanciful attempt to walk once more amongst giants. But if any deserves our indulgence it is Woods, a player who, with due respect to golf’s godlike quartet, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, changed the golfing landscape like no other.
Those red-shirted Sundays of his peak years were something to behold, from the moment he announced himself with a thumping victory at the 1997 Masters in his maiden Augusta trip as a pro, and this after taking 40 to reach the turn on day one, to his record 15-stroke victory at the 2000 US Open, to the epic US Open at Torrey Pines in 2008, where he claimed his 14th major while playing with a fractured leg.
Jones was the definitive player of the early 20th Century, Hogan gave golf its technical profile that still endures today, Palmer was the poster boy of the swinging Sixties, Nicklaus was a winning machine. Woods combined elements of all four plus the exotica of ethnicity that transformed the landscape.
Woods brought eyeballs from all sides. Broadcasters took him global and the sponsors piled in. The economics of golf went through the roof, making the PGA Tour one of the richest sports franchises on earth. The $1m dollar pay cheques routinely banked by tournament winners today can be directly linked to the rise of Woods. That’s why the players love him, that’s why this latest comeback is coated in sentiment. Golf became synonymous with Woods, the most powerful brand the sport has known.
And as the fanfare ringing around Albany tells us, none can bear to see him go.