What's left in Tiger Woods' tank?

Tiger Woods had plenty of shining moments in his return to golf.

What's left in Tiger Woods' tank?

PGA Tour

What's left in Tiger Woods' tank?

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Golfweek

The sample size was diminutive, a single slide under a huge microscope, comprising four days and 72 holes in an unofficial winter event played amid laid-back Bahamian island breezes. As Tiger Woods readies to cut the ribbon on Phase II of his career, his play showed new possibilities for what lies ahead.

Lest any of us forget, Phase I was pretty damn special.

Woods’ longtime friend and former Isleworth neighbor, PGA Tour Champions player and Golf Channel analyst John Cook, watched Woods at the Hero World Challenge and was convinced of this: He easily passed the eye test. Sure, he finished far back – 15th among 17 players for a guy who always believed that second “sucks” – but his overall play was encouraging, enough to make many reassess what Woods might do in ‘17.

As in, gee whiz, after nearly 16 months away, this guy is farther along than we thought.

“I’ve been around him the last 20 years, been through the good, bad and the ugly with him, and from what I saw, he’s as close to the good as I’ve seen in a long time,” Cook said.

Back across that deep blue Atlantic Ocean, a more prominent Ohio State Buckeye than Cook took notice, too. Jack Nicklaus wasn’t glued to the television, but the handful of swings he stopped to watch left him impressed.

Nicklaus, who turned 77 on Jan. 21, the man whose record 18 major championships Woods circled on his wall and began hunting many years ago, always has been generous when asked about Woods’ potential to catch him. Sure Tiger could win 18 majors, he’d say, but he still has to “go out and do it.” Woods had eight majors by age 26, and 14 by 32, and it appeared to be a foregone conclusion he’d get there.

Today, Woods (79 Tour victories, 14 majors) is 41 and has undergone double-digit surgeries on his knees and back (three disc procedures removing him from the PGA Tour for 16 months). He’s physically fit but frail. How long will he be able to swing a golf club 120 mph? Another decade, he hopes. Nicklaus peers down from the mountaintop, does some math, and offers this:

“I still think that he’s got 10 years of majors in front of him,” Nicklaus said. “Physically, he’s a great-looking specimen. He’s got a great golf swing, he’s got a great game. If he can mentally get the game back together to where he believes he can do what he wants to do, we’ll see. Out of 40 majors in the next 10 years, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think that he can win five of them.”

Pie-in-the-sky thinking? Perhaps. Vegas would tell you Woods might catch Sam Snead (PGA Tour-record 82 victories), but never Nicklaus. Four more majors to tie? That’s a huge haul. Crazy talk. But is it not more ludicrous to believe that Woods never will win again?

New PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said, “I keep getting asked, do I think he’s going to win this year? Just so we’re clear, when he’s 75 years old, I’m going to still think he can win on that given week.”

Here’s what we learned in the Bahamas: Woods never will rank among the longest hitters anymore as he once did, overpowering par 5s week to week. He did show adequate speed in a swing that was more flowing, more athletic. More natural, much the way he swung the club in his free-wheeling youth. There was ample power, enough for him to send tee shots bounding past those
of Patrick Reed and Rickie Fowler, both of whom hit it plenty far.

Woods’ ballstriking in the Bahamas in December impressed many observers. (Stan Badz/PGA TOUR)

Woods’ ballstriking in the Bahamas in December impressed many observers. (Stan Badz/PGA TOUR)

Woods’ iron play was sharp, setting up some easy birdies on par-3 holes, and an old friend re-emerged in Tiger’s repertoire: Woods was moving the ball right to left again. (“For a little while, all he could do was hit low, crop-dusting cuts,” Cook said.) As for Woods’ chipping, which unraveled to the point of embarrassment in early 2015? At Hero, it was frequently average, but on a few occasions – a deft flop he executed from rock-hard hardpan to 6 feet to remain bogeyless in a second-round 65 – it was downright spectacular.

Woods’ simpler action should bode well in terms of placing less stress on a body that can’t absorb much more. He is adjusting to maximum practice ball counts and lighter workout regimens. Woods’ best accomplishment at the Hero? It wasn’t leading the field in birdies (24), but simply standing after walking 90 holes. That was the test. One year earlier, he’d had trouble physically getting out of bed.

“Well, this part of it, getting back to this point is beyond anything that I’ve ever experienced in my lifetime,” Woods said. “The pain issues that I had, it was rough. To battle back, to battle through it, to have the friends I’ve had who have supported me, helped me through it … quite frankly, there were some pretty dire times where I just couldn’t move.”

Woods confided to Cook that he wouldn’t have worked so hard to get back had he not really, really wanted to compete again. He misses the adrenaline rush of the battle, the primal drive to look his opponent in the eye and refuse to lose. He’s a gladiator. Woods hasn’t captured a major since the 2008 U.S. Open, which predates his 2009 personal scandal, but in his last full season on Tour, in 2013, he did win five times and was player of the year.

The innate gift to win and his comfort level down the stretch, his peers will tell you, doesn’t carry an expiration date. There will be small steps in this journey for Woods – being able to practice enough, then play enough at home, then take the good parts back out on Tour – but the ultimate goal isn’t just being there. He’s back to win.

Notah Begay, Golf Channel analyst and Woods’ former Stanford roommate, said Woods had four moving targets at Hero: the physical test; the technical (swing); new equipment; and the mental challenge of competing. If Woods’ back indeed is healthy, and if his equipment is dialed in, then his challenge is trimmed in half.

“Once that (health) becomes a non-issue, we’re going to see a lot of the emphasis placed on winning,” Begay said.

Adds Cook, “He’s very fresh mentally. A lot of guys have won a lot of tournaments in their 40s, and none of them were Tiger Woods. Not even close. So if there’s anybody that can have a second career in their 40s, it’s going to be Tiger. The longevity depends on how long he wants to do it.”

In his time away, Woods picked up a new hobby. He’s into cycling, sometimes taking off along Florida’s east coast for 50- and 70-mile rides. In getting back to competing again – something he has done his entire life – is he not just getting back on a bike?

“He has won 80 times, right?” asks Henrik Stenson, the world’s fourth-ranked player. “You know, his comfort zone, his game, if he puts himself in contention, he will not have forgotten how to win. It doesn’t go away. What you’ve done is certainly in the back of your spine.”

Woods still harbors great reverence for his vocation, but it isn’t the be-all, end-all that it once was. He’s not 25 anymore, but age alone isn’t a detriment. Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson won consecutive British Opens in their 40s. At Turnberry in 2009, Tom Watson missed a putt to win his sixth Open as he was bearing down on 60.

Sure, age is a challenge. So are his business interests, which have been unified under a new brand, TGR. Woods owns a restaurant, builds golf courses and runs the highly successful Tiger Woods Foundation. Most importantly, Woods’ two young children, Sam and Charlie, are starting to get more active in sports, and their father wants to be there for soccer practice.

“In my 40s, my kids were playing high school football, they were playing basketball, baseball, golf, tennis, played everything,” said Nicklaus, the man who did it better than anyone. “And I wanted to be part of my family. I didn’t want to spend my whole life charging away at another major championship. It wasn’t that important.”

Add this ingredient: Woods is accustomed to excellence. In his first 295 starts as a pro, he missed the cut only 10 times. Should his comeback stall and he’s not close to collecting trophies, how long will he hang around?

To Woods, clearly, golf still is important. Meaningful. And though we can concede he won’t be the dominant player of yesteryear, if healthy, he may just surprise us all.

Why? Jason Gore, Woods’ pal from SoCal junior days, has a simple answer: “He’s Tiger Woods.”

– Kevin Casey contributed to this story

• • •

Tiger Woods Phase II

Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods (Getty Images)

THREE REASONS TIGER WOODS CAN BE SUCCESSFUL AGAIN

1. HE’S STUBBORN
Lots of folks don’t believe Tiger Woods will win another tournament. That fuels him.

2. HIS PUTTING
For years, he never missed a 10-footer he really needed. If he can get back to being a clutch putter, it will relieve stress from his ballstriking.

3. PRIDE
He’ll want to give his children a glimpse of how he performed so well for so long.

THREE FACTORS THAT MIGHT KEEP HIM FROM A SUCCESSFUL COMEBACK

1. INTEREST
He has a growing business brand, his own foundation and two children getting old enough to have their own activities. He won’t be as singularly focused as he once was.

2. TODAY’S DEPTH
Golf is more global than ever, with plenty of young stars. Winning tournaments is difficult.

3. HEALTH
It’s simple: Woods needs to be healthy enough to properly prepare to compete. At 41, will his back and body hold up?

– Jeff Babineau

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