It was 20 years ago last month when the world began to understand that golf, at least for the near future, wouldn’t be the same. Tiger Woods was on the prowl in Las Vegas, stalking what would become his first professional win. I walked inside the ropes alongside him, amid frenzied sounds from the crowd unlike any I’d heard on the golf course before.
I was also next to the 18th green at Torrey Pines 12 years later when Woods – playing basically on one leg – rolled in a 15-footer to force a playoff in the US Open. The next day, productivity in offices around the nation plummeted as workers tuned in to see if he could finish off a miracle win against Rocco Mediate.
He did, of course, winning his 14th major. Bum leg or not, there seemed no way Woods could be stopped on the golf course.
That was his last major championship win, a fact that remains startling, and even a little sad. It’s almost incomprehensible that it’s eight years later, and equally incomprehensible the things that have gone on with Woods during that time.Some were of his own making, and were stunning by themselves. Others were simply a reflection on the toll Father Time and a violent golf swing can take on a body.
As much as we hope for it, greatness never lasts. It’s fleeting at best, even for the best. Sandy Koufax had five great years before flaming out. Jim Brown quit after nine seasons, and even Tom Brady will one day have to hang them up.
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Woods perseveres, though, even if the best he’ll ever do is show flashes of what he once had. He’s no longer going to dominate, and it’s still a big question whether he will even be competitive again.
Woods, though, has plans. This is golf, remember, where Jack Nicklaus won the Masters at the age of 46 and Davis Love won on the PGA Tour last year at 51.
No one cuts you in golf. No one boos you from the grandstands or tells you you’re not good enough to play on a team.
“To see those guys, in those various sports, if you lose a little bit, you’re going to probably be replaced,” Woods said. “But in golf, I can play a different way and get away with it.”
Woods tees off Thursday in a tournament that means nothing. The Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas is little more than an 18-player exhibition Woods himself set up years ago to make some money for his foundation and give players he likes some easy holiday bonus money.
But it means everything to Woods. It’s a barometer not only of where his game is now, but whether he can come back from a 15-month layoff and somehow compete at the highest level again.
Odds makers don’t like his chances, listing him last in the field as a 40-1 long shot to win. With good reason, because a new generation has taken over golf and they don’t know what it means to be intimidated the way players were intimidated by Tiger in his prime.
Woods now has gray in his goatee, and less hair on top of his head. He turns 41 next month, and is the oldest player in the field.
He still draws eyeballs, but now they are more out of curiosity and misplaced hope than anything else. In the pro-am on Wednesday, two eagles on the front nine by Woods sent some golf writers and followers straight to social media sites to proclaim there is still some greatness there.
Woods isn’t ready to go that far. But he’s no longer worried about embarrassing himself like he did last year when he had the yips chipping in Phoenix, and believes he can still get the ball in the hole.
“It’s fun for me to do this,” he said. “That’s what people probably don’t quite understand. I love to compete, I love playing against these guys and I miss being out here.”
Golf fans miss seeing Woods, too. At the recent Ryder Cup, he still had people yelling his name as he drove a golf cart between holes while serving as an assistant captain. We watch because we remember the greatness, the drives that sailed past everyone and the putts that always seemed to go in. We’ll also watch because there exists the possibility of a train wreck yet again.
Things are different now, Woods insists, even though he aborted a comeback last month in California because he felt he wasn’t ready. He says he has rediscovered the shots that have been missing from his game.
“I can play,” he said. “I can play, I can compete and hopefully I can get out there and shoot something.”
Woods will shoot something, that’s for sure. But that may be the only guarantee he has all week.