Any dream of competing properly, let alone adding to his 15 majors, appear unattainable for wounded great
It would be quite the story if Tiger Woods turned up at a tournament and announced he was there only to make up numbers. Eyebrows were raised when Woods used pre-tournament media duties at the Genesis Invitational last week to assert he was in California to win, seven months after his last competitive round, but this was Woods in natural form. When the 47-year-old senses he cannot trade blows with the best in the world he will quietly exit stage left.
Woods must realise that time is fast approaching. He surely comprehends the competitive dilemma he finds himself stuck within. Making the cut at the Genesis was a fine achievement – Matt Fitzpatrick, Justin Rose, Jordan Spieth and Sam Burns did not – but Woods wants to be judged by loftier standards. The victor, Jon Rahm, finished 16 shots better off than the 15-times major champion, who tied for 45th. Rahm, the world No 1 once more, recorded four sub‑70 rounds.
“I’m not going to play any more than probably the majors and maybe a couple more,” Woods said. “That’s it, that’s all my body will allow me to do. My back the way it is, all the surgeries I had on my back, my leg the way it is. That’s just going to be my future.
“My intent last year was to play in all four majors, I got three of the four. Hopefully this year I can get all four and maybe sprinkle in a few here and there. But that’s it for the rest of my career. I know that and I understand that. That’s just my reality.”
For Woods, it is surely an unsatisfactory one. It is remarkable he remains active at the summit of golf, such has been the scale of his injuries, but his aspirations appear unattainable. Without regular competition exposure, it is at best improbable and at worst impossible that he can compete. Experience can count for only so much.
“Even if I played four days at home, it’s not the same as adrenaline,” he said. Woods also spoke consistently of rust during the Genesis weekend. As he tries to reacquaint himself with tournament domains, the depth of talent has never been stronger.
His 2019 Masters success was one of the most epic in the history of sport. However, not only was this preceded by a glimpse of what may come – Woods won at East Lake in Atlanta in late 2018 – but it has been followed by harsh reality. A share of 21st at the 2019 US Open stands out in a majors run that otherwise reads: cut-cut-T38-T37-cut-47th-withdrawal due to injury-cut.
Woods surely scaled the mountain for a final time in Georgia four years ago. Indeed, he should be perfectly content at having done that. There are no more points to prove. The lengths Woods has to go to when playing 72 holes, even irregularly, will take a toll. “I lay in ice pretty much all night,” he said of post-rounds at Genesis. “It’s not fun, very cold all the time. And then treatment, then getting muscles activated and go back and hop in the cold again. The ebb and flow of that, it’s hard. It’s hard mentally, it’s hard physically.”
Even if Woods is using the powers of exaggeration – which is not uncommon – one wonders how sustainable this process is.
His return was overshadowed by the Thursday episode where he handed Justin Thomas a tampon by way of what was later described as a “prank”. Woods has always been a fan of laddish, gauche humour, but this was an especially weird – and premeditated – scene that caused widespread offence. Thomas should know better than to play the giggling sidekick given he lost sponsors for a homophobic slur uttered on the course in 2021.
It has never seemed as if anybody in Team Tiger has the bravery or scope to tell arguably the greatest of all time that he should modify his behaviour. Acolytes, like Thomas, merely laugh along.
Woods and Woods alone will determine the point at which he can operate as nothing more than a recreational golfer. Besides another trip to Augusta National, this year offers an Open Championship at Royal Liverpool, where he won in 2006. If Woods is true to his word, and he cannot feature at the top of leaderboards by late July, the final farewell is closer than many have assumed.
In an alternative scenario, Woods defies the odds to contend with the best. The trouble is, that looks far more dream than reality.