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WE WANT TO EMBRACE THE UNFATHOMABLE, BUT TIGER IS BEING UNREALISTIC
Lucky to be alive and have a right leg, Woods insists on generating hype that he’ll play next week at the Masters, not a good idea without a cart — who wants to see him crumple to the Georgia ground?
Don’t lie. A comeback from the dead clearly is our favorite pipedream, an illusion we’d love to celebrate and hug. Who wouldn’t want Tiger Woods to return in peak form, from an SUV crash that would have killed most people, as we continue to wonder if he’s one of us or some otherworldly being? By managing to walk 72 holes and contend next week at Augusta National, wouldn’t he reiterate his lifelong statement that no encumbrance can keep him down?
Just the same, with common sense as the guide, this is a time to think not with the heart but the conscience. Fourteen months after his right leg nearly was amputated, after he mindlessly drove 84 mph in a 45 zone on a curvy California backroad, Woods is in no physical or mental condition to achieve anything at the Masters but some charitable applause. He said it himself only six weeks ago, that he wouldn’t resume competitive golf unless he had a chance to win tournaments … to be Tiger Woods again.
“I need to feel that I’m confident I can beat these guys,’’ he said.
He isn’t ready. He might never be ready. And by showing up in the Georgia hills for a practice round Tuesday, all he did was tease the sports world and fool himself. It’s what he has done throughout his 25-plus years in the public eye, drop hints that move the meter and generate buzz. This time, the hype feels neither right nor rational. This time, his mission feels forced and sad and fraught with peril. Who wants to see him swing a club and crumple to the grass?
Only when he’s definitively ready to compete for a major championship should Woods reappear. He already has implanted the famous final scene of his life story in memory banks forever — his rally from a decade of multiple surgeries and disgraceful scandals to win the 2019 Masters. Why muddle that glorious picture by limping around the challenging topography of a course he has no chance of mastering?
We were listening very closely in mid-February when he said, “I wish I could tell you when I'm playing again. I want to know, but I don't. My golf activity has been very limited. I'm still working on the walking part. My foot was a little messed up there about a year ago, so the walking part is something I'm still working on, working on strength and development in that. It takes time. What's frustrating is it's not at my timetable. I want to be at a certain place, but I'm not. I've got to continue working. I'm getting better, yes, but not at the speed and rate that I would like. You add in the age factor, too. You just don't quite heal as fast, which is frustrating."
So now, at 46, with a ravaged body, he’s suddenly ready to “beat these guys’’ when he hasn’t played in a regular PGA Tour event in two years? It’s delusional. No doubt months of recuperation, in bed at home amid the dark isolation of a pandemic, played with his mind. No doubt he was energized in December when he played 36 memorable holes with his chip-off-the-old-block son, Charlie, in the PNC Championship exhbition. He was still Tiger Woods that weekend, with an undebatable exception: He was allowed to use a cart, not permitted at Augusta, where the distance of the course has been extended to 7,510 yards — times four days, plus multiple pre-rounds. “My right leg does not look like my left leg,’’ he said months later, “let’s put it that way.’’ Of the rigors of tournament play, he said: “I’m talking about playing golf. It’s the competitive nature, how much that takes out of you mentally, physically, emotionally. I haven’t prepared for any of that.”
Maybe he’ll say the practice round was a whim, a chance to have some fun with Charlie and close friend Justin Thomas. For now, the media leaks from his team aren’t stopping, with one breathlessly telling ESPN of the 18-hole journey, “He played every one of them. He looked good to me.’’
Just imagining Woods in the tee box, a week from Thursday, gives mega-juice to a Masters that will be empty without him and Phil Mickelson. Unlike Mickelson, who fumbled away a career of unconditional public love with his money-grubbing embrace of a rival Saudi league, Woods converted even his most unruly haters when he won his fifth green jacket. If he was ready to contend against favorites Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Collin Morikawa and Thomas, who wouldn’t watch every minute? CBS could send Jim Nantz and Nick Faldo home and let a massive viewership do living-room commentary.
But any legitimate comeback would require, at the least, another year of work and patience. Realistically, Woods seemed to be saying goodbye when he was inducted earlier this month into the World Golf Hall of Fame. He broke down when his 14-year-old daughter, Sam, presented him.
“Dad,’’ she said, “I inducted you into the Dad Hall of Fame a long time ago. In 2007, my dad got himself in position to make an 18-foot putt to force a U.S. Open playoff, which he missed by a foot. He then had to rush to the airport, flew from Pittsburgh to Orlando and drove to the Winnie Palmer Hospital. Within five minutes of walking into the hospital room, still wearing his red golf shirt, on June 18th, I was born. He may have lost that day, but he won the greatest gift of all.”
“Crap,’’ said Woods, fighting tears. “I just lost a bet to (Steve) Stricker that I wouldn’t cry. Thank you, Sam.”
Then came the tributes.
“Besides entertaining all of us for 20 years and doing unbelievable things, he inspired the generation of players you’re seeing today,” said Rahm, the world’s top-ranked player.
“He’s everything,” said Morikawa, ranked No. 2. “I grew up watching him. I wanted to compete against him. You wanted to be No. 1 in the world. I just wanted to meet him.”
“There is this saying that you shouldn’t meet your heroes, and Tiger was my hero when I met him, and he lived up to expectations,” McIlroy said.
“I think every pro out here owes a debt of gratitude to Tiger because this sport wouldn’t be where it is today without his impact,” Patrick Cantlay said.
“He’s created what golf is today and we’re all products of it,” Xander Schauffele said. “He transformed golf.”
Notice how their comments are in the past tense.
It’s a wonderful place to stay when you’re Tiger Woods.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.