Memorial got the finale it wanted, Tiger Woods heading down "the stretch" with Ricky Fowler; American poster boys bookending a generation. It required Woods, labouring under the malevolent influence of man flu, to falter a fraction over Saturday's closing holes to secure yesterday's platinum pairing, but not enough to undermine the credibility of golf's obsessive debate: is Tiger back?
"Who is that man wearing Tiger Woods' clothing?" asked the Golf Channel funny man David Feherty. It looked like Woods. The muscular outline and unmistakable gait suggested Woods. The leaderboard proclaimed him, yet the doubts remained. Could it really be Tiger? Has our hero truly returned?
He had at Bay Hill a month ago, winning his first regular PGA Tour event since 2009. This was the departure the pro camp had been seeking, evidence that the greatest golfer of the era was ready to embellish a record that might yet see him stand alone as the best there has been. And then came ties for 40th at the Masters and the Players either side of a missed cut at Quail Hollow. Silence settled over the "yes" campaign while the backs of the doubters stood a little straighter.
The truth is neither side is right because the question is wrong.
Woods will never again be the golfer of 2000, when, in the first flowering of absolute power, he had freakish control of the vicissitudes that make golf the tortuous pastime it is, and of his body. Fifteen years winding up a swing that moved the game into athletic territory have wrought havoc on his physique. The left knee is glued together by hope and compromise.
The adjustments he has made to protect a list of ailments the length of his left peg have left him vulnerable to breakdown at any moment, so much so that "limp alert" has become a feature of the Woods-watching experience. Last year he walked off nine holes into his opening round at Sawgrass and earlier this year chucked it in at the Cadillac Championship with seven holes of his final round to play. At the weekend it was hay fever and flu that slowed his stride.
It is pointless trying to resurrect the old Woods. Let that legend rest. In his period of plenty he banked more majors than any in history. That surely speaks for itself. For 11 years between 1997 and 2008 he compiled a record that took the game on, 14 majors at a rate greater than Jack Nicklaus, who took 13 seasons to rack up the same number. Far better to judge him not against Nicklaus, not against himself, but on what he is now, a tour mortal who might or might not be on his game any given weekend.
At Memorial he topped the greens in regulation. Fantastic. A relative triumph. At the end of his round on Saturday he exchanged fist taps – handshakes won't do these days – with his playing partner, Scott Stallings, who was persuaded to take up the game after watching Woods win the Masters in 1997. He smiled through an interview with the CBC golf analyst Peter Kostis despite a bogey at the last.
Here was a player happy again with his lot. There was no nonsense about being a better person, each and every day. Woods is no longer being asked to justify himself as a man but as a golfer. The complication forced by the obligation to walk on higher moral ground in the wake of his infidelity has gone. He can hit the ball without having to be a perfect human being. This has freed him to reclaim an element of the Tiger that was. This no longer manifests itself in a mastery of the course, though there was some of that in Ohio, but in the mastery of himself.
Woods will always be a divisive figure. The moral and political sensitivities stirred by the revelations following Thanksgiving 2009 led to the universal downgrading of his character. The inevitable decline in performance, compounded by injury, produced the vacuum filled by Rory McIlroy and to a lesser degree Fowler, fresh meat feeding sport's insatiable appetite for new heroes. With McIlroy temporarily relegated to the range to nip in the bud the onset of creeping doubt syndrome a fortnight before his US Open defence, the return of Woods to the leader board is timely. But that is all.
It does not guarantee that he will tear down the flags at Olympic Club in a blaze of old glory. It does not mean he will supplant McIlroy at the vanguard of the game. Only that he has rediscovered the means to contend again as any mortal golfer might when the force is with him, as it was at Memorial. The driver behaved for the most part, the irons peppered the pins and a good few putts dropped. He won at Arnie's tournament a couple of months back, lit a flare at Jack's last week, and might even land another major. But please, no more talk of resurrection. Leave that to the gods.Reuse content