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 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 earlier this year 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? Truthfully, did we miss him?
Well, yes, we did.
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 trying to win the British Open in post-breakup mode and Bubba Watson at the Waffle House after the Masters — Woods’ presence not only is welcome but necessary. 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 reminds us, 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. But it was every bit as discouraging, albeit predictable, to see him start his second round with a double bogey and bogey and settle for a day of unimaginative pars. He seems to have a long-term master plan in his latest comeback, yet as he nears 39, no one is particularly in the mood to wait two or three more years when he hasn’t won a major in more than six years.
Tiger can’t merely show up for majors. He must contend, wear the red victory shirt on Sundays, at least evoke periodic flashes of his former dominance.
Otherwise, he becomes Michael Jordan in Washington. And no one wants to experience that debacle again. Recently, Woods compared the current state of his game with that of Jordan in his twilight. “As I’ve aged, I can’t play the way I used to,’’ he said of the death-stare, power-and-intimidation days, noting that younger players have the same toned bodies and athleticism that once set him apart. “It’s changed dramatically. But just like MJ, I’ve got a fadeaway now.’’
If a fadeaway means a long string of pars that left him far behind McIlroy at day’s end, that translates to a man trying to hang on for dear life. That is not the Eldrick Woods I know.
As one who said Tiger wouldn’t play in a major this year, I do thank him for 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 making the cut at the British seemed ridiculous. Maybe he’ll implode in what likely will be a wet weekend at Royal Liverpool, following his recent pattern in majors. But for those who just want to see him healthy enough to play, there was some peace in shooting a 69.
“I knew I could do it,” Woods said Thursday. “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.
In his mind, he was going for the jugular and the Jug. That is impressive, to maintain the same resolve. Woods had every reason to fade away, from the relentless injuries that have plagued him physically to the sex-scandal fallout that 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.
Friday brought a somber tone, though no less defiant. On a day when McIlroy avoided his traditional “Freaky Friday’’ problems by keeping his composure and protecting his lead, Woods continued to think he was in the hunt. At what point does confidence cross over into denial?
His peers are thrilled to see him back, knowing his presence only lures eyeballs to golf 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.’’
“He generates so much interest. So I’m happy to see that. He’ll be wanting to take his spot back at the top,’’ said Adam Scott, the current world No. 1.
He’s not ready yet for the top spot. He may never be ready. But if he can place himself on the leaderboard some Sunday afternoon when it matters, the world will stop everything and watch, as always. The clout of being Tiger Woods never can be taken away from Tiger Woods, even when so much else has.