It is the single most common question I’ve ever been asked – will Tiger Woods ever be “back?”
My answer is always the same – it depends on what your definition of “back” is.
Back to winning 71 PGA Tour events and 14 majors in the next 13 years the way he did in his first 13 years? No.
Back to being the best golfer in the world? Well, I’d argue he’s already done that. In fact, he never really went away.
Woods finished third in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, and it has been almost universally classified as a failure, which says more about the critics than the subject.
Woods shared the 54-hole lead with England’s Robert Rock, a quality yet unheralded pro who went on to earn his second career victory. Since Woods didn’t close the deal like he did 55 of the previous 63 times he held at least a share of the lead going into the final round, his “comeback” apparently reboots again.
“The reports of Tiger Woods’s resurrection are greatly exaggerated,” wrote The Independent of London. “His aura remains buried in the past and many of us believe (Sunday’s) latest shortfall, in Abu Dhabi, will only make his return to predominance that much more demanding.”
This illustrates just how unfairly Woods – who said he was “a touch off” – is being judged. The only yardstick he’s ever measured by is the one that was created solely for him during the peak of his supremacy. It is an utterly absurd standard to which no other golfer in history (and that includes Jack Nicklaus) can measure up to.
Did the UK papers declare Rory McIlroy’s second-place finish a failure? How about the efforts of Nos. 1 and 3 Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, who never factored?
Nope, only Woods gets the anything-less-than-victory-is-a-failure treatment. Of course, that is the way he’s always judged himself, so the golf media is just following his self-established protocol.
But in the past two years as he’s struggled with personal hardship, injuries and another swing overhaul, the established rating system is horribly unfair.
In the last year, Woods finished only 11 full-field events, posting three top-fours including last year’s Masters Tournament. He missed just one cut in that span (PGA) and finished outside of the top 30 just three other times.
Starting with the 2010 Masters, he’s completed only 24 official tournaments since his return from the scandal that rocked his career. In those 24 events, he’s finished 13 times among the top 20, including three fourth-place finishes in majors.
If these were the results of any other golfer, they probably would be considered pretty impressive. The raw numbers minus all the preconceived notions would support that assessment.
If you divided Woods’ world ranking points earned post-scandal by the actual number of events he’s competed in (as is the case for every single other player in the top 80 in the world), Woods would rank No. 6 in the world instead of 17th. Take away the two Players Championships he withdrew from because of injury, and he’d be No. 5 and the highest ranked American.
That’s how good Woods is even at his very worst.
The difference between this Woods and the one who dominated for more than a decade is on the putting green. In that regard, he’s a little more like everyone else. He no longer seems to will every crucial putt inside of 15 feet into the hole, breaking the back of opponents and saving that extra stroke or two that is the difference between winning and finishing fourth.
But what Woods showed last week on a strange desert course and at the end of last year in Australia as well as winning his own elite 18-player event at Sherwood is that he still has all the shots needed to beat everyone else. He might not do it as consistently often as he used to, but he’s still more consistently in the hunt than all the other perceived “greats.”
What gets attacked most often about this version of Tiger is his lost “aura,” and certainly he seems more scared of himself and his confidence to close these days than anyone else.
Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell was a little dismissive of Woods’ famous Sunday prop.
“Tiger’s red shirt does not intimidate anyone anymore. What it means to him is obviously different than what it means to us,” McDowell said last week.
Frankly, Tiger’s aura was already overrated and it really hasn’t changed. If you don’t believe he’s still not the first name every other player in the field notices on the leaderboard, I’ve got some golf course real estate you might be gullible enough to invest in.
Woods’ “aura” didn’t win those 14 majors, his talent did. Any players who wilted under the pressure likely would have wilted regardless of who they were chasing. His “aura” didn’t scare off the likes of Bob May or Rich Beem or Chris DiMarco or Michael Campbell or Zach Johnson or a bunch of guys who were considered inferior yet challenged him to the limit, sometimes winning against Woods at his absolute best. Did his aura only scare the supposed “greats?”
No, Woods was just better. In fact, there’s not a player right now who could be classified as “better.” Others have had better results over the past two years while Woods has been regaining his footing, but there isn’t anyone that has replaced the void of dominance that he left vacant.
Woods will certainly have more high-end challengers now. He has more self-doubts in some areas of his game than before. He has structural health issues to contend with that don’t typically get better with age.
However, when he resumes winning – and he will soon, possibly even at the Masters – it will likely be at a rate more in line with other top-tier players. Whether he can win enough to catch and surpass Nicklaus’ 18 majors is debatable and less realistic than it seemed to be in 2008.
But whether he’s “back” is just a matter of perception or semantics. Except for a few lapses inflicted by injury or moral missteps, Woods has never actually been gone.