Life cannot begin again quickly enough for Tiger Woods. Earlier this month, at his own tournament – the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas – his lament could be heard around the world, for it sounded like one of the great careers in golf was in receipt of the last rites.
Fast forward three weeks to the eve of Christmas and Woods presented an entirely different perspective on his prospects as a 40-year-old golfer, a mark he reaches this Wednesday. After three back operations in 18 months, the odds on Woods resuming a meaningful career are monumentally long. The lower lumber region is a notoriously brittle part of the golfing anatomy and, with so little research in the area, none can say with confidence how Woods might respond to invasive surgery.
The point is he appears minded to give it a go, to look on 2016 optimistically, which is a significant shift in position. Presumably the upswing in mood corresponds to an improvement in his condition. Nothing messes with the mind of an athlete like enforced indolence. Being asked to do nothing but wait in a restive state until his back responded to the adjustments made by the surgeon was the right medicine for his torso but a plague on morale.
Woods responds to structure. He sets targets. Progress is measured in ticks placed against goals set. Each of his many comebacks, either from injury or swing change, has proceeded according to forecast trajectories. The post-40 back recovery requires an entirely different approach, but there has been some inner reconciliation between the urge to return and the need to take his surgeon’s advice.
“The thing I’m looking forward to the most about 2016 is getting back out there again. I’ve missed it, and I would like to do it pain-free. I haven’t done that in what seems like a long time,” Woods said in his pre-Christmas address to fans. “I’ve had it in spurts the last few years and have done some pretty good things, but I’d like to have sustained health.
“Where do I see myself in the next five to 10 years? I am still playing golf at the highest level and winning tournaments and major championships.”
Wishful thinking it might be, but better that than resignation. Of course, the world is rushing by at pace. The attack of the twenty-somethings is already fully formed in the shape of world No 1 Jordan Speith, a double major winner at 22, No 2 Jason Day, who turned 28 last month as the US PGA champion, and, of course, our own Rory McIlroy, world No 3 and a four-time major champion at 26.
Woods won the last of his 14 majors – that is as many as Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Seve Ballesteros combined – at the US Open at Torrey Pines in 2008 at the age of 32. He rattled them off in record time, 12 seasons. It took Jack Nicklaus 14 to reach the same total. By 40, Nicklaus had one more than Woods and, intriguingly, won his 18th and final major at 46, offering Woods at least statistical hope of forties nirvana.
The great Ben Hogan had the best year of his career as a 41-year-old in 1953, claiming the Masters, the US Open and the Open in three magical months. The grand slam was not a possibility then because the US PGA and the Open overlapped. Woods, of course, remains the only golfer to have held all four majors consecutively – in 2000 and 2001 – a bounty that came in his golden period from 1999 to 2002, when he won seven times across 11 majors.
While we are reminiscing, it is worth noting his 79 PGA titles are bettered only by Sam Snead with 83, reinforcing the idea that golf has never seen a player like the peak Woods. That is especially so given his ethnicity and his athleticism, both of which broke new ground in the sport.
For the white male of the species, the kind of casual racism and prejudice that confronted Woods as a boy is just an abstraction, impossible to replicate or even to imagine. Even now, golf courses are not a popular habitat for the African-American male, or any ethnic minority for that matter.
When this is taken into account, Woods’ achievements are even more impressive and, perhaps, betray something of the iron will in which his extraordinary deeds are rooted.
This is why Woods cannot be discounted yet, no matter how long the odds. The nature of his injury might indeed be insurmountable but, while there is still hope in his heart, he has earned the right to the benefit of the doubt. Besides, what would 2016 be without the idea of the Woods resurrection, a theme that has kept the sport bubbling along since he rammed his black Cadillac Escalade into that fire hydrant on the night of Thanksgiving 2009.
How simple life was back then, when the only hoops through which he had to jump were moral. In his first event back after an absence of five months, Woods posted an insane fourth-place finish at the Masters. The walk of shame forced on him for the betrayal of his wife and his standing in the game was arguably the greatest humiliation witnessed in sport. Yet, he survived.
Despite subsequent injury and sundry changes of swing, Woods rose again to reclaim the world No 1 spot in 2013, winning five tournaments for the 10th time in his career. Can he do it all again in his forties? If anyone can, Eldrick Tont Woods is surely that man.
With four majors at the age of 26, Rory McIlroy is one of the young guns who are leaving Woods far behind
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Where do I see myself in the next five to 10 years? Still winning majors
Tiger Woods is all smiles after sinking a birdie at the Wyndham Championship back in August before undergoing a third back operation in 18 months getty
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