Veteran PGA Tour caddie sees plenty of old Tiger Woods in new Tiger Woods

Dante Carrer/Associated Press

Veteran PGA Tour caddie sees plenty of old Tiger Woods in new Tiger Woods

PGA Tour

Veteran PGA Tour caddie sees plenty of old Tiger Woods in new Tiger Woods

It was a straightforward question for John Wood, who might be the most talkative, candid caddie on the PGA Tour.

“What is the most impressive shot Tiger Woods ever pulled off while you were standing with him on the course?”

Wood lets out a deep sigh.

“Let me think.”

He remains silent for 10 seconds and says we’ll need to come back to that one, so let’s start with the most impressive thing Woods ever said to him on the course.

Wood was on the bag for Kevin Sutherland at the 1999 Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines and paired with Woods in the final group Sunday. On the 18th green, Woods essentially had the victory wrapped up but faced a difficult downhill putt with about 4 to 5 feet of left-to-right break. Sutherland already had chipped onto the green and marked his ball.

Tiger asked Wood to come over and told him Sutherland needed to putt out and finish.

“I said (Sutherland) would really be uncomfortable doing that,” Wood said. “Tiger said, ‘Listen, tell him to take his time. Don’t worry about standing in my line or in my through line or anything, but when I make this putt everybody’s gonna go crazy and he’s not going to have any peace to make his putt.’”

Not if. When.

Four back surgeries and 18 years later, the inevitability surrounding Woods’ game and persona is gone. Once-unimaginable personal details have become public, and there are no more sure things.

When Tiger made his latest comeback at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, however, Wood was still sure of one thing as he stood with the crowd Thursday afternoon to watch him hit his first tee shot.

“Listen, I have so much respect and admiration and love for the way these younger guys play the game and what they bring to it,” Wood said. “The game is in great hands with Jordan (Spieth) and Rickie (Fowler) and Rory (McIlroy) and Justin (Thomas). That being said, Tiger Woods brings more to a tournament than the next 10 guys in the world all together bring.”

Despite the decline of Tiger’s game since he last won a major in 2008, Wood is also sure of the fact that he’s in a better place, personally, than he’s ever been. He saw it up close at this year’s Presidents Cup, where Wood caddied for Matt Kuchar. He also saw glimpses during Tiger’s glory years, but those moments were fleeting and occurred strictly inside the ropes. Now that the curtain has been lifted, it’s almost as if Tiger is finally free to be himself.

Caddie John Wood believes Tiger Woods is now free to be himself on the course. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

“Before, there was so much pressure on him to be this perfect person, perfect golfer,” Wood said. “This was a guy who couldn’t go out to dinner for 10 years because he’d be accosted. It was like being a Beatle. He felt this amazing pressure to be the person everybody wanted him to be. I think now he accepts his imperfections. He jokes about them, and he’s one of the guys a lot more. I think he’s in a really good place in his life.”

Tiger’s swing also seems to be in a better place after the recent back fusion surgery. When Wood showed up in the Bahamas for the Hero World Challenge, one of the first things he did was text Tiger’s caddie Joe LaCava. They’re good friends and hadn’t seen each other much during Tiger’s time away from the game.

Wood hopped in a golf cart to meet up with LaCava on the driving range, where Tiger was practicing. He immediately noticed a big difference from the grimace-faced Tiger we saw during the brief 2016 return.

“It looked like Tiger Woods,” Wood said. “That’s the best way I can describe it. … It looks to me like he’s just finding his way back to himself more than anything.”

It’s been 20 minutes and Wood still can’t answer the question. Here’s the thing about Tiger, he explains. In his prime he was the best at everything. The best driver, the best escape artist, the best chipper, the best putter and the best mentally. There were incredibly impressive shots, but the most impressive thing was the habitualness of it all.

“The cavalcade of disasters that had to happen for him to make a single bogey was so improbable, because he was so good at everything,” Wood said.

The bogeys are more routine these days. Tiger made four of them while shooting 40 on the front nine in Round 3 at the Hero World Challenge. After finally rolling in his first birdie putt of the day at No. 14, he took a bow, a sort of self-imposed Bronx cheer. Then, he smiled.

“He was always awesome to play with … but when golf ended he was pretty guarded, because he had to be,” Wood said. “Now he’s a lot more open and is enjoying being Tiger Woods.”

(Note: This story appears in the December 2017 issue of Golfweek.)

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