He’s Not Done Yet: Tiger Woods

The final round of the TOUR Championship was one for the ages.  Darren Rovell (ESPN) reported that NBC estimated that the telecast was the highest rated round in history and the tournament as a whole the most watched of the year, excluding majors. 

Throughout the day on September 23, 2018, sports enthusiasts across social media, television, and online blog posts exclaimed in many ways but most simply “TIGER IS BACK.”   Even some well-known and publicized nay-sayers—and there were many just 16 months ago—recanted.  Here’s the truth: Tiger has BEEN back; however, yesterday was the culmination of the greatest comeback of a pro athlete in history, in any sport.

Golf may be boring or too slow to some, but it certainly isn’t your father’s PGA tour when you see a physical specimen like Tiger Woods (who started this in part 1 of his career) as well as the likes of today’s elite such as Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Tiger Woods, and Rory McIlroy.

Back on Tiger, he just won a golf tournament against arguably 29 (give or take) other best golfers in the world at age 42. This was after having FOUR, yes FOUR, different back surgeries over a span of just a few years plus some serious knee reconstruction (we still don’t even know for certain if it occurred because of golf).

In November 2017, Tiger said he didn’t know if he would ever be able to swing a golf club or even walk comfortably again. That seems pretty understandable given the series of events.  Let’s look back:  (Injury info courtesy of Independent.ie, ESPN, and GolfWeek)

August 2007 Tiger ruptures the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while running at home after the Open Championship but doesn’t have surgery.
April 2008 Tiger has surgery on his left knee to clean out cartilage
June 2008 Tiger wins his 14th (and most recent) major after playing through 2 stress fractures in his back and a torn ACL in his left knee; he has surgery after his win and misses the rest of the season
April 2010 Tiger reveals that he tore his right Achilles tendon in 2008 and reinjured several times in 2009
May 2010 Tiger withdraws from final round of the PLAYERS championshi8p with inflamed joint in his neck
April 2011 Tiger announces he’s sprained his left knee and Achilles tendon while hitting an awkward shot during the 3rd round of 2011 Masters
May 2011 Withdraws from 2011 PLAYERS citing pain in his knee, Achilles, and calf muscle
March 2012 Withdraws from WGC citing an Achilles tendon problem
March 2014 Withdraws from Honda Classic with 5 holes to go citing back pain
April 2014 Announces he will miss first Masters in his career after undergoing microdiscectomy surgery on a pinched nerve in his back
February 2015 The infamous withdraw due to his back where Tiger claimed he was unable to keeps his glutes “activated” which caused him lower back pain
September 2015 Tiger finishes 10th at the Wyndham Championship but announces a second microdiscectomy surgery and “hopes to return in early 2016”
October 2015 Tiger undergoes a “follow-up procedure” to September’s surgery
April 2016 Tiger announces he will miss the Masters for the second time in 3 years
December 2016 Returns to action at his tournament the “Hero World Challenge” after 15 months out
February 2017 Withdraws from 2nd round in Dubai citing back spasms
April 2017 Tiger announces he’s undergone spinal fusion surgery to alleviate “ongoing pain in his back and leg”; he then missed the entire 2017 season
September 2017 Tiger says he’s just now starting to hit 60-yard shots
December 2017 Returns to action at his tournament the “Hero World Challenge” after 301 days of no competition since withdrawing in Dubai and after a fourth back surgery

Even though I follow Tiger day-by-day and was aware of all these injuries as news broke about his progress (or lack thereof), it is still mind-boggling to look at all of these and fathom how this man is playing professional golf never mind the amount of rounds that we see and don’t see (practice, pro-ams, etc.) which add up to a ton of swings.  We all know the golf is not the most natural movement for us humans not to mention trying to swing a club at 120 mph.

Ok.  Now we are back in December 2017.  As Tiger tees  it up for the first time in nearly a year, he is the 656th ranked golfer in the world. I would be willing to bet most people didn’t know:

1) That there were possibly that many golfers to be ranked in the world; and,

2) How in the hell he could be that low?

In Tiger’s return to action, he tees it up at Torrey Pines in California, a place in which he’s won before, and finishes T23. Not bad but definitely not up to his standards. He follows up that performance with a missed cut, one of only 2 during the season. I believe that fans began to worry if he was shaping up for another injury, another withdraw, or maybe Tiger really just can’t play anymore. Well, after finishing 12th, T2, and T5 in his next 3 tournaments (T5 at the Arnold Palmer where he’s won EIGHT TIMES), Tiger moved himself up from 656th to 105th in the world.

When the 2018 Masters rolled around, hopes were high and Tiger had moved up to one of the betting favorites and people thought (including myself), maybe, just maybe, he pulls off this win and the greatest comeback ever is alive and well. A disappointing (for him) T32 at the Masters followed by a T55 in May saw a bit of a stall. Tiger finishes T11 at the PLAYERS in May, T23 at Jack’s tournament, the Memorial, in early June and finds himself at 80th in the world rankings. A brutal missed cut at the U.S. Open in a tournament where he never got anything going, including a triple bogey on his first hole, was a kick in the teeth and left fans wondering if he could contend on the big stage anymore. Following a T4 at a tournament (albeit a very weak field) that he sponsors, Tiger showed up to Carnoustie for the Open Championship, which was a place I personally thought he could succeed since the wide fairways would help to lessen his driving woes. When Sunday rolled around and Tiger was in one of the last groups where he briefly held the outright lead, I, as I assume many others did, thought: is this it? Is #15 coming right here, RIGHT NOW? Unfortunately, Tiger proceed to go +3 over 2 of the next holes and ended up finishing T6 while his playing partner, Francesco Molinari, captured the Claret Jug.

Now, this sounds like a disappointment, especially from my end, but that T6 finish achieved two immense tasks:

1) It showed Tiger could ABSOLUTELY compete on the big stage again; and,

2) it got him up to 50th (exactly) in the world golf rankings

This means that he qualified for the WGC – Bridgestone in Akron, an event close to his heart—not surprisingly–since that he has won there eight times. After a T31 finish there, pretty weak by my standards, Tiger showed up to the 100th PGA Championship, which was being played on a new course, and proceeded to open up bogey, double bogey. Here we go again I thought; Tiger giving away his chances after two or three holes. Tiger then proceed to go full “Tiger Kill Mode” and go -16 in his next 70 holes, which concluded with a 64 on Sunday and a solo second finish. That Sunday was an absolute spectacle and was again one of the highest rated and most watched rounds in several years. We saw Tiger hit remarkable shots that only he can and we all thought there was a serious chance he could get this, only to unfortunately be undone on the last Par 5 with an errant drive. Tiger produced more electrifying highlights, including this must watch moment (Tiger Recovery at #9 of the 2018 PGA Championship) as the crowd becomes unglued. This was the moment I knew Tiger woods could win again. As a superfan, I, of course, always root and hope for him to get a victory, but after his performance and incredible Sunday round, I just knew it was coming, and it was coming soon.

The 2018 TOUR Championship brought Tiger Woods his first tournament win since 2013, his 80th PGA Tour victory, and a scene on the 72nd hole unlike any I’ve ever seen in my life. Tiger put the finishing touches on his comeback and now sits at 13th in the world golf rankings at one year after he was just hitting 60-yard pitch shots. A comeback that didn’t seem possible and one that should go down as simply the greatest, no questions asked.

Tiger 72nd

The feeling I got as Tiger strolled up the 72nd hole, win pretty much in hand, was one that is indescribable in words; I finally saw my childhood hero, my favorite athlete of all time, and the most influential athlete I’ve ever known, return to his rightful calling.

I have always said that Tiger has had a worldly impact on not just golf, but on sports, as he is the one I credit for making golf cool. He inspired kids to play golf, his game forced courses to lengthen and lengthen as he outgrew them. From a financial perspective, he brings ratings like no other in a single sport.

I started out this post with a tidbit about the TOUR championship ratings but since Tiger Woods IS THE NEEDLE, his impact is felt in every tournament he plays no matter how big or small. When he finished solo second at the PGA Championship last month, CBS saw a 69% increase in rating from 2017 (Woods didn’t play last year). This is the highest rating for the PGA Championship since… the last time Tiger almost won the even in 2009. More ratings: two months ago when Tiger was in one of the last few groups at the Open Championship, NBC saw its highest rating since… 2006. You could probably guess what happened then too? Yeah, that was Tiger winning at Royal Liverpool which could of course ONLY be topped by the 2000 Open at St. Andrews, where Mr. Eldrick Woods won his first Claret Jug to complete the Career Grand Slam. In an era in which athletes get older and teams whom were once the dominant force in their respective league go through ebbs and flows, Tiger Woods remains the most driving force in fan interest. This doesn’t appear as if it’s going change anytime soon.

I think despite my clear fandom (sorry for apparent man-crush here), it is important to also acknowledge that yes, Tiger is by no means perfect. He has made many, many mistakes including the cheating scandal which first surfaced in 2008 and festered for two years leading to his divorce.This led many to believe that the edge would be forever gone and his reputation was forever tainted. I do recall a notable PGA professional who publicly stated that no one was afraid of Tiger anymore. Not sure Rory would agree with that after yesterday. Looking back to even around a year ago in June/July 2017, Tiger received a DUI after he took too many prescription pills; he publically apologized and checked himself into a drug rehab facility.

As an important destinction, I (along with many) appreciate and see Tiger as an influential icon and a superstar athlete, not as a person. The common pushback you will get when Tiger Woods comes up in discussion is, “he’s a pig,” “he’s a liar,” “he’s a womanizer,” or “he’s disgusting and a cheater,” and while all those are acceptable things to say, I am not nearly as interested in his personal life.  What I will say on the topic, is that Tiger is still ultra-competitive and a stone-cold killer when he’s locked in (which is amazing by the way), but he is not the emotionless robot that he once was when all he did was win and move on. A good example would be how much he seems to joke with his caddy Joe LaCava these days, how he interacts in media sessions, and take his victory yesterday at the TOUR Championship where he was so overcome with emotion he could barely speak. As I sat and watched his interview on SportsCenter with Scott van Pelt, I have never seen him at a loss for words and say he was close to crying after his victory (with the exception of his first victory after his father passed away).

Tiger is the father of two children from his previous marriage, and as they are now 10 years and older, they finally get to see their father win again. I believe Tiger has changed a bit of his mantra to adjust for that. Tiger doesn’t work out at 5 AM, go hit balls, go play 18, go for a run, hit balls, play again, etc. anymore because he can’t but he still has such a vice grip on both the golf, and sports world, as a whole.

I grew up playing golf as my father taught my brothers and me the beloved game at a young age but Tiger Woods is why I WATCH golf. Tiger isn’t the reason I took up the game, but I would argue he has influenced more than a handful of men and women to play the game. I grew up wanting to wear Tiger’s vintage red shirt when I played 18, I wanted to own Nike apparel, and when I made a putt I wanted to give the patented Tiger fist pump (Tiger 2008 US Open 72nd Hole) . There are amazing players on the TOUR right now whom I love, such as Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Brooks Koepka, Xander Schauffele, and many others, but all of us, pro or not, have been affected by Tiger’s reach and by his style of play (and swag). We all wanted to be Tiger when we were young and that is why this slow but continuing comeback has been so meaningful.

As Tiger said to Scott van Pelt, “I don’t know how many years I have left,” and while that is a tough pill to swallow, especially for me, I have never felt so confident that he will continue to win and will win another major. Will he win 4 more and tie Jack? Maybe, maybe not, but it is clearly that he has the mindset, and of course, the skill to win even at age 42. He was once again the number 1 iron player on tour this year, a feat that is not unusual to him. Look at this tweet below: Doesn’t seem possible.

Tiger Stats

 

Tiger is here to stay, and I, for one, am excited about what the future holds. Maybe more than that, I’m just excited to have my favorite athlete back in the winner’s circle and the game of golf presently. Tiger makes golf great, he makes the sports world great, and he provides with some of the best theatre one could ever ask for in the sport’s industry. At the end of the day, don’t we just want to be entertained?

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