It would be easy enough to dump him into a spam bucket, or banish him to cloud storage. If we’re squarely in a 21st-century world now, didn’t Tiger Woods say “Hello, World’’ back in 1996? When he last won a major golf tournament, six years ago, Barack Obama was still a senator from Illinois, tweeting was some newfangled gadget doomed to dumb us all down and Don Draper was just starting to cheat on Betty. Hell, Tiger hadn’t even cheated on Elin yet.
Did we really miss him those three months when he was recovering from back surgery? Think about it. Had so much time passed since his last significant glory, with all hope gone of breaking Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles, that Woods had slipped into an irrelevance coma, incapable of being awakened?
We missed him a lot, actually.
Just because he can’t top Jack and might not win another major doesn’t mean we want to stop watching him try. In a sport with little in the way of compelling material — I’ll give you Rory McIlroy in post-breakup mode and Bubba Watson at the Waffle House on Washington Road after the Masters — we not only welcome Tiger back at the British Open but thank him for returning so quickly, which is shocking to me, as I was the one who said he wouldn’t play in a major this year. Quiz: Who won the U.S. Open in June? I could insert the “Jeopardy’’ music here, and most of you wouldn’t know “Martin Kaymer’’ when Alex Trebek demands the answer. No offense, but Martin Kaymer is why we need Woods to contend in majors. As the Wall Street Journal reminded us this week, Tiger spoiled us like few athletes ever, winning a preposterous 13 of 35 majors in a span from 1999 to 2008. And when he hasn’t won, only a handful of competitors who did win majors — Phil Mickelson, Watson, Ernie Els among them — have captivated or even interested the masses. There have been too many one-hit wonders among major winners, ranging from Rich Beem and Y.E. Yang to Shaun Micheel and Keegan Bradley. Per the Journal, 27 of the 56 majors not won by Woods since 1997 have been claimed by one-time champions. This has led to no-name-itis in a sport that is losing participants in record numbers, with young people not into the all-day commitment as the industry braces for a stunning exodus: an estimated 20 percent of the 25 million who do play are expected to ditch their clubs and stop playing in the coming years.
So, yes, it was delightful to see Woods shoot 69 in the first round at Hoylake, leaving him three strokes behind the leader, McIlroy, and immediately injecting a hit of oxygen into the men’s game. I say men’s game because the women’s game has been more more compelling of late, with the resurrection of Michelle Wie and the ice cream cone of 11-year-old Lucy Li. When Woods missed the cut at his own tournament last month at Congressional, the idea of contending at Royal Liverpool seemed ridiculous. Maybe he’ll implode over the weekend, following his recent pattern in majors. But for those of us who just want to see him healthy enough to play, much less win big events, this was the best Tiger news in quite a while.
“I knew I could do it,” Woods said. “That’s why I was telling you guys it was so important for me to play at Congressional. The fact that I was able to recover every day, and the fact that I was stronger, more explosive the more days I played — I’m only going to get better. And I’m getting stronger, I’m getting faster, I’m getting more explosive. The ball is starting to travel again.”
We’ve heard this before, given his long history of periodic self-affirmations. But the fire is still there, which is vital to whatever future is ahead. He has renewed his running war with rude photographers — “Jesus Christ,’’ he snapped when several shooters crowded too close — and discourteous gallery members who don’t turn off cell phones, twice backing away from shots when technology was too noisy. “Just put it on silent,’’ he urged. In the past, we would scold him for such behavior. Now, we root him on.
He is going for the jugular and the Jug. That is impressive. Woods had every reason to fade away, from the relentless injuries that have plagued him physically to the fallout from his sex scandals that has blurred his once-meticulous focus. Someone asked him this week what an acceptable finish would be in the British Open.
“First,’’ Woods said.
“Anything less would be unacceptable?’’ came the followup.
“That’s always the case, yeah.’’
If the bravado is the same, little else is. Since winning the Claret Jug at Royal Liverpool in 2006, Woods has plummeted from status as the world’s premier athlete and become, at first, a punchline after the scandal, then a sad, dejected figure as he struggled to regain his elite form. “My life is very different than it was then,’’ said Woods, who has changed his swing coach, his caddy and his significant other since then.
His peers are thrilled to see him back, knowing his presence only lures eyeballs to everyone this weekend. “We all benefit from him being in the tournament,” Mickelson said. “We are just glad he’s back. He’s back a lot earlier than I think a lot of us thought. That’s only beneficial, and hopefully he’ll play well.”
“He generates so much interest. So I’m happy to see