Woods Watch: Return Imminent?
NEW YORK—The PGA Tour is now in the lull between the Masters and the next run up of big time events, which commences in May and leads to the year’s 2nd major—the U.S. Open at Oakmont in mid-June.
The chatter picking up steam is that Tigers Woods, missing from action since last August in Greensboro, will return for The Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, which commences play on May 5. The 14-time major champion has been intensifying practice sessions with full shots at his home club—The Medalist—located in Hobe Sound and near to his residence on Jupiter Island, according to media reports.
Woods had two back surgeries after leaving the PGA Tour late last year and his agent Mark Steinberg has been tight-lipped on when the former world number one player will return to action. In 2015, Woods had his worst year as a professional and failed to make the 36-hole cut in three of the four major championships he appeared in—a dubious achievement, given that that had never happened before.
Now ranked 486th in the world, the issue is whether the 40-year-old can once again attain relevance. A wide assortment of young players have pushed to the top of golf’s pecking order, with the likes of Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy—respectively, the top three ranked players globally.
The last PGA Tour win for Woods came in August 2013 at the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone and his last major triumph came nearly eight years ago at the U.S. Open in 2008 at Torrey Pines.
While Woods didn’t need to disclose a desire to play on the PGA Tour until the Friday prior to the North Carolina event on April 29, it is important to point out that he has registered an entry for the forthcoming U.S. Open at Oakmont in June.
The United States Golf Association (USGA) confirmed Woods submitted an entry on April 4 for the event, well ahead of the April 27 deadline. As a past winner of the event in 2008, Woods is eligible for the final field. It is quite conceivable Woods would use the Wells Fargo as a starting event, then add the Tournament Players Championship held the week after. Woods could also include a return in early June to the Memorial—the prestigious event hosted by Jack Nicklaus just outside of Columbus where Woods has won five times. The Memorial comes just two weeks before the U.S. Open.
During his time away from competitive golf, Woods has insisted he would not return until he is thoroughly confident his body can withstand the intensity of practice and competition. Clearly, there is no way to know how effective Woods would be given his nearly eight months away from competitive golf.
Having Woods return will likely generate much initial interest, but if his return demonstrates a serious meltdown as it did during his last attempted comeback, one can only speculate if he will be steadfast in marching on from one event to another and simply become a sideshow to the main contenders. Woods hinted at a previous press conference that he is quite proud of his playing record and that should it end, he would have no regrets.
His marquee value will no doubt be at its highest with his return to the game—whenever that happens. But for Woods the real question is whether he can once again be a force in professional golf, winning another PGA tournament, before even contemplating adding to his 14 major wins.
Unlike just about any other sport, golf is a solitary effort. The game starts and stops with the player. There is no bailout, no back-ups, and no timeouts. For someone who holds the record for most weeks ranked number one in the world, the idea of simply being a sideshow may only hasten Woods to completely end his golf career and walk away from the game permanently.
Golf with Woods back in the saddle at the top of the game’s hierarchy could do much to rejuvenate interest among general sports fans. While it’s unlikely Woods will ever again show the utter domination that he did for the stretch of golf from his first record setting major win in ’97 at the Masters through the ’08 U.S. Open, there is little question that top quality golf can be played—including the winning of majors as demonstrated by the likes of Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh—when reaching 40-plus years.
The new generation of players that has come on strong the last few years sees Woods more as a past champion—someone in their rear view mirror who does not strike the kind of outright intimidation he so easily conveyed to opponents in the first decade of his professional career.
Father time has not been favorable to Woods and the key will not only be a physical question mark, but whether the drive and desire—the foundation of his success—are still yearning to be rekindled and blaze hot again. That will not be answered until he steps back into a competitive setting. Much will certainly be known in the next few days. To paraphrase a quote made famous by former NFL Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells, “You are what your golf score says you are.”
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.