Thursdays aren’t usually noteworthy days on the PGA Tour, barring 59s or rules fiascos. Thursday at the BMW Championship was different though.
In the opening round of the penultimate FedEx Cup playoff event, Tiger Woods scorched Aronimink in 62 strokes, a score he hadn’t managed in five years.
“Biggest take away? Made some putts. Got off to a better start than I have most of the season,” he said afterward.
It was an understandably focused takeaway for the man in the arena. For the rest of us in the bleachers, Thursday offered another glimpse of the latent, tantalizing promise in this comeback.
We’ve seen Woods sprint from the starting blocks like Usain Bolt before (albeit not recently), but what made Thursday different was that one of his rivals kept pace. Rory McIlroy matched that 62. It was the first time the king and the heir had ever shared the lead in a PGA Tour event.
Sure, it was Thursday and not Sunday, and it didn’t last – both stalled on Friday and were passed by others. But that didn’t really matter in this season of baby steps.
Together with the final rounds of the British Open and PGA Championship, it was another tease that Woods may finally give fans the one thing his brilliance had always denied them: a rivalry.
The last great rivalry in men’s golf featured Nick Faldo and Greg Norman, more than two decades ago. Long before his career detoured into injury and personal crises, it was apparent that Woods would never face a credible challenger from his own peer group.
Woods had rivals for a day, not a career.
Real sports rivalries are forged in the pursuit of trophies that matter, not in pay-per-view pretense. They’re about the breaking of records, even the breaking of hearts, but most assuredly not the breaking of ratings and subscription goals.
More recently, it seemed that Tiger’s physical decline would unfairly truncate his career and rob fans of even a passing of the torch to a new generation.
Instead, his resurgence suggests what could be his most thrilling chapter yet: a battle against his would-be usurpers.
Sometimes a rivalry is only possible when a god starts to play like a mortal.
We saw it at Carnoustie and Bellerive, where Woods traded blows with younger opponents before falling short of prizes he feared he never again would contend for. That frailty in his game today provides more drama on major Sundays than any of his putative rivals contributed in his prime.
Despite his stumbles, Woods in 2018 has reminded the fresh faces that he’s still a force. It wasn’t that long ago that the kids would wax wistfully about wishing they had faced Tiger in his prime, a kindly lie that could only come from those who haven’t glanced down the range and taken stock of the hollowed men whose careers he impoverished.
Els. Mickelson. Garcia. His inferiors were hall of famers.
The kids of this era won’t see Woods at his best — we may never see that level again from anyone– but they are at least seeing a decent simulation of it. Up close, too. That 62 he shot at Aronimink? He was paired with Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler. Message sent.
Golf’s most compelling rivalries have always been intergenerational. There are many iconic images of Jack Nicklaus’ career, but few more stirring than that of Tom Watson and he walking off the final green at Turnberry in 1977, arms draped around each other, the challenger and the legend, the victor and the vanquished.
“The self-containment and self-assuredness, the depth of commitment and the blinkered determination, the combination of reserve and forthrightness, the marching in a straight line toward some lofty, privately determined destination, gave me a fresh insight into my early impact on golf,” Nicklaus wrote of his rival two decades later.
Even the most feared hunter eventually becomes someone’s prey.
No equivalent “Duel in the Sun” image lingers from Woods’ career. The closest we’ve come to it was perhaps this year’s PGA Championship, when Woods waited around to congratulate the only man who beat him, Brooks Koepka. It’s not much, but it’s a start.
This PGA Tour season began with worries about Woods’ health and ends with him reestablished as the most dominant presence in the sport. He didn’t need to win to reclaim that mantle.
That’s one half of the rivalry in place. Time to find out if he has a Watson. Gwk