This is the year of Tiger Woods. When was it otherwise? Will he win another major? Is his demise terminal? These are the wildly oscillating poles around which the golf chat rooms spin.
Since the fire-hydrant anomie of Thanksgiving 2009 and subsequent marital meltdown Woods has vacillated between extremes. There have been nine victories in the post-apocalypse period, five in one majestic year, 2013, and fallow spells pockmarked by swing issues and injury, last year’s write-off being characterised by the latter.
Woods turned 39 six days ago, the clock bringing him ever closer to the point where he is no longer relevant. But as the web column inches over Christmas and New Year demonstrate, we are not there yet.
Golf, or more specifically the PGA and European tours, emerge from their brief winter shutdowns with tournaments this week in Hawaii and South Africa. We await the smoke signals to confirm where Woods will break cover.
His last knock, in the week before Christmas, extended to no more than nine holes, a photo opportunity to publicise the opening of his first completed course design project in Mexico. Before that he contested his own tournament, the Hero World Challenge in Florida. It was his first event since the PGA Championship in August, which in turn was his first outing for four and a half months following back surgery in March.
Woods finished joint last in Florida, 26 shots behind the winner Jordan Spieth. He hit his opening tee shot out of bounds, his ball finishing closer to a neighbouring swimming pool than the fairway, and thereafter hacked around the greens like an 18-handicapper.
Relax. All is cool, he claimed. The technical failings were simply the consequence of the most recent shift in biomechanics to facilitate the changes being implemented by his latest swing coach, Chris Como. It’s just a matter of reps.
I recall standing in the post-round huddle of journalists after he missed the cut at the 2011 PGA Championship in Atlanta. He was about a year into his association with Sean Foley and the rhetoric was steeped in the technical jargon of the range: reps, trajectories, sequence and so on. And so it is today.
“If I put my backswing in the same position that I used to have it in and then make this new release, I’m going to hit it fat every time,” Woods said in the aftermath of the Hero Challenge. “I’ve got to get things in a different order. It’s a different release pattern, and so my chipping is off. All it is, is practice. I just need to work.”
When the same speech was delivered three years ago absolute belief met with shaking heads. Most in that throng had obituaries on their editors’ desks ready to roll as Woods drifted further from the epicentre of the game. It never happened. In December that year he claimed the forerunner to the Hero, the Chevron World Challenge, before winning three PGA Tour events in 2012.
Woods was back. In 2013 he resumed his station as world No 1 as prelude to the Player of the Year award as judged by his peers. Though the 15th major did not arrive, those obits had been returned to senders.
Few in the history of sport have managed to compartmentalise negative outcomes like Woods. He sees the world much like the medieval monarch, believing absolutely in his version of events. The old kings of Christendom drew authority from God, since they were his divine emissaries on earth. Woods is in golfing terms his own holy trinity – God, the son of God and the Holy Spirit. His presence among us has been unlike anything witnessed before or since. His ethnicity, athleticism and precocity were wrapped around a talent as profound as any to have played the game.
Woods is self-evidently not the force of nature he was in his youth. But he is injury-free and deserves our attention when he says that, in his 40th year, fitness is the most important club in his bag.
His schedule is set with the Masters in mind. Woods is working back from the second week of April to optimise his chances at Augusta. It might be that we don’t see him at all this month. An obvious starting point would be Torrey Pines, where he has recorded eight victories, in the first week of February before the PGA Tour moves eastward from California to Florida.
When he does appear, the standard madness will ensue. If he reaches anything close to the required standard they might as well put him in boxing gloves at Augusta in the opposite corner to Rory McIlroy. Given the historic baggage attending both at the season’s first major, with McIlroy attempting to emulate Woods by becoming the sixth player to win all four majors, the hullaballoo might make it impossible for either to triumph.
Then again, impossible is nothing for them, according to their kit supplier.
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