Decades from now, every young golfer will only be able to hear and read about the legend of Eldrick Woods, the man universally known as “Tiger.”
They will hear of his dominance: how he once won seven majors in a three-year span. They will hear of the fear he struck in opponents, how golfers regularly averaged higher scores out of pure intimidation of playing next to Tiger. They will also hear of his poise, how he won his first Masters at age 21 by a record 12 strokes, becoming the first African-American to win the tournament. If golf is lucky enough, they will also hear about his successful return to the sport after a tumultuous few years that saw the man become a shell of his former self.
After Tiger’s unexpected second place finish in last weekend’s Valspar Championship, the question was asked again, “Is Tiger back?”
The answer depends on how you define the question. Does he have to win a major to be back? In that case, it’s unlikely Tiger will ever be back, as he won his last major almost a decade ago at Torrey Pines. To move forward, people must accept that the Tiger of the past decade will never be back, and any fan of golf would be doing themselves an injustice if they expected that.
He can no longer drive the ball a country mile straight down the fairway the way he did in his younger years. However, his reformed swing has him right among the top golfers in driving distance, with a reinstalled confidence that makes him a dangerous golfer in any tournament he plays. In last weekend’s tournament, Woods scored under par in all four rounds, proving his capability of competing at a high level again.
It is easy to forget that this is a 42-year-old man who has already been through four back surgeries. Just last fall, he was arrested for DUI, although alcohol was not involved. Rather, he was taking a mix of prescribed painkillers because of his balky back. After completing his rehab and pleading guilty to reckless driving, he was uncertain if he would ever play golf professionally again. Simply put, it would be heartless to not feel any sorrow towards Woods given that we are a country in a midst of an opioid epidemic, and his struggle with painkillers mirrors that of many Americans suffering from chronic back pain.
It would be easy to envision a golf landscape in which Tiger was finished, considering all he has been through. And so, the prospect of him competing at the highest level again is an incredible feat in and of itself, never mind the fact that he secured a top-five finish in a premier PGA event.
Since Woods last hoisted a major trophy in 2008, golf has witnessed the emergence of multiple young stars that have reinvigorated the sport. All of those golfers, whether it be Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, or Justin Thomas, cites Woods as a reason why they fell in love with golf and chose to pursue professional careers.
Each has already won at least one major and each is poised to win more, assuming their careers stay on the right path.
With so much new talent now in the game, winning another major appears increasingly unlikely for Woods, as the young golfers who were inspired by him continue to improve.
Former golfer Ben Crane put it best when describing how Tiger Woods was able to impact the sporting landscape with his herculean-type dominance.
“Tiger provided the most compelling TV drama over the last 20 years,” Crane said. “Kids who watched him quit basketball, baseball and football because they wanted to be like him. Now he’s facing competition that he literally created. What a sport.”
Whether or not Tiger wins another major, or even another tournament, he will undoubtedly draw audiences and keep himself in the mix just enough for fans to believe that he may be back.
One thing that almost every golf fan can universally agree on is that there is nothing more joyful and nostalgic than the sight of Tiger wearing his patented red polo on Sunday. To see that beloved sight is all the world needs to know that Tiger is officially back.
Andrew Lombardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @lombardo_andrew.