We’re just past the decade anniversary of one of the most notorious moments in golf history: the Thanksgiving weekend where Tiger Woods’ double life exploded into the world’s headlines and effectively vaporized every bit of the family-man champion he’d cultivated for so long.
In the wake of all that soul-sucking drama, as well as the injuries that devoured entire seasons over the last decade, a new generation of stars stepped into the vacuum, players who saw Woods as an icon rather than a rival. As Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth notched major after major, as Jason Day and Justin Thomas took their turns in the bright lights, golf fans wondered: how would these guys fare if Tiger, in full Sunday red and black, could cut loose on them?
This past year provided the answer: with the exception of Brooks Koepka, today’s stars have to be every bit as wary of Woods as the past two generations. Tiger is off the bedroom-wall poster and on the tee right next to them … and even though he’s smiling a lot more than he ever did before, he’s showing no mercy.
Many of the world’s best are hanging out this week in the Bahamas at the glorified clambake that is the Hero World Challenge, the first event Woods has played since winning the Zozo Classic in Japan. They’re deferring to Woods — he’s not only the tournament host, he’s the U.S. captain of next week’s Presidents Cup — but he’s making them sweat all the same:
That Presidents Cup captaincy — and the fact that Captain Woods selected Player Woods for the team — is yet another sign that Woods is easing into the next phase of his career with grace.
Another anniversary: four years ago at this very event, Woods — too injured to play — plodded through a press conference that sounded more like a wake than ever before.
"There's really nothing I can look forward to, nothing I can build towards," Woods said that day in 2015. "It's literally just day by day and week by week and time by time. Where is the light at the end of the tunnel? I don't know.”
Turned out that the light at the end of the tunnel was the 18th at Augusta earlier this year, when Woods won the most improbable major of his career. Woods isn’t the best in the game — Brooks Koepka holds that title by almost any standard — but at his best, Woods can still beat anyone in the game. That’s a twist nobody saw coming.
Woods is easing into the elder-statesman role now; another injury would probably be it for him. But it’s clear he’s still willing to serve as Jedi master to the current generation, even if he’s not quite ready to leave the stage.
“Most of the guys on the [Presidents Cup] team, we all grew up watching Tiger and looking up to him. He was someone that was, you know, pushing golf and moving the needle,” said Rickie Fowler, a late add to the Presidents Cup team after Koepka withdrew because of injury. “So to be on not only a team with him, but him being a captain of the team, it's special. We all want to play with him. We all want him to push us. But I think over the last, you know, five years or so, it's really been fun, especially J.T. and I, to build a relationship with Tiger and feel like we're, you know, kind of helping push him at the same time.”
Regardless of how much credit you want to give Fowler and Thomas for kicking Woods in the butt, the fact remains that Tiger, for the first time in more than half a decade, rolls into a new year as healthy as he could possibly be. Moreover, he’s rolling into the new year with hope. He won the last PGA Tour event he played, he won the last Masters he played, and he’s got goals again: setting the Tour wins record (he needs one more) and, at long last, catching Jack Nicklaus’s mark of 18 majors (he needs three more).
Granted, Woods isn’t going to dominate the field on a consistent basis ever again; putting aside the fact that Koepka lurks in every major, Woods just doesn’t have the game off the tee or the consistency around the green to win week-in, week-out. (He carded an inconsistent 72 at the first round of the Hero.) Still, Fowler, Spieth and the rest have Woods back and at their level. Careful what you wish for.
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