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.
But as quickly as his presence at Royal Liverpool enlivened a sport that had become uneventful without him, Woods reminded us of his demise. After heightening hopes with an opening-round 69, he finished the British Open in 69th place, his worst-ever finish in a major. Coupled with the wire-to-wire victory of Rory McIlroy, who clearly is branded now as golf’s present and future, Tiger never seemed older.
“I just made too many mistakes,’’ said Woods, five months from his 39th birthday.
Just because he can’t top Jack and might not win another major doesn’t mean we want to stop watching him try. While McIlroy’s win creates global buzz, here’s a quick 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 57 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 play well 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 in for a pretty lousy final three days. He seems to have a long-term master plan in his latest comeback, yet 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 barely making the cut and playing the weekend off the radar screen, that translates to a man trying to hang on for dear life. That is not the Eldrick Woods I know.
Nor do I recognize the Tiger who was reduced Sunday to begging for a Ryder Cup berth on the U.S. team. A major decision awaits captain Tom Watson, who, at age 64, moved above Woods on the final leaderboard with a 68 and said, upon hearing that Woods was struggling again on the final round, “That’s not very good.’’ Having missed three months with an injury and nearly invisible in the standings, Woods won’t have the ranking to be among nine automatic qualifiers. Watson will make three at-large selections on Sept. 2, but Woods, to help his cause, would need to qualify for the FedEx playoffs, which start next month. He is playing only two more events before then, including the PGA Championship, and he’ll need to average top-five finishes in those tournaments just to qualify for the FedEx events, which Watson would use to gauge the state of Woods’ game and his readiness for a fiercely waged competition against Europe at Gleneagles in September. Rather incredibly, Woods might have to play European Tour events in Denmark, Italy and/or the Czech Republic to even earn Watson’s consideration.
“If he’s playing well and in good health, I’ll pick him,” said Watson, per the Associated Press. “But the caveat to that is if he doesn’t make the FedEx Cup, what do I do then? That’s not here yet.”
Watson suggested Woods should stay active elsewhere in tournament play if he doesn’t qualify for the FedEx events. “It would make it tougher for me to pick him if he’s not playing,’’ said Watson, who also faces a similar situation with Mickelson.
This is not the no-brainer you might think it is. Regardless of his regal pedigree and invaluable international experience, Woods is not one of America’s best 12 golfers. Would his monster game suddenly show up at the Ryder Cup? Should Watson choose him just because he’s Tiger Woods? If he’s not good enough, I say no. In any Woods vs. Mickelson scenario, you take Phil this time, period. Tiger disagrees.
“I would say yes,’’ Woods said. “Bur that’s my position, my take on it. He’s the captain. Obviously it’s his decision. He’s going to field the best 12 players that he thinks will win the Cup back. And I hope I’m on that team.”
And why would he think his game would improve the next few weeks? “The fact I was able to play a few weeks ahead of time, and I’m only getting stronger and faster, which is great,’’ he said. “I just had to get more game time. I think we did the smart thing by not playing too much leading into this event, just want to assess how my back was. And where I need to strengthen, how I need to go about it, how to gain my explosiveness again, and all that’s come along.
“I just thought that — I know how to play links golf, I know how to grind it on these golf courses, and hitting the shots I thought I could get around here,” he said. “I did the first day. After a bad start I got it back. And unfortunately, as I said, I made too many mistakes with the doubles and triples. I’ve got more game time under my belt. Obviously there’s a lot of things I need to work on, but I haven’t been able to work on a lot. I was down for three months. So I’m just now starting to come back.”
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 last 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.
Sunday brought a somber tone, though no less defiant. 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. “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.