News & Opinion

Biggest rehab for Woods involves image

He’s rehabbing from his fourth spinal surgery, conducted earlier this spring. Then he spent a month in treatment over the summer because of a reliance on prescription drugs.

Given the back story, as Tiger Woods resurfaces in public for the first time in months at the Presidents Cup matches, the question beckons: Is there such a thing as three-habbing?

Mostly invisible since early February while battling physical and personal issues that included a humiliating DUI arrest in south Florida, Woods signed on to serve as an assistant captain at this week’s matches across the Hudson River from Manhattan, a move that should help revitalize whatever remains of his shredded public persona.

Though Woods rarely takes a secondary role, it was a master stroke for him to sign on as one of U.S. captain Steve Stricker’s sidemen. With the Americans expected to win in a runaway, Woods can stand in the background while mentoring the six rookies on the 12-man team, avoiding uncomfortable questions about his drug issues, physical state and playing plans.

In the media capital of the world, he will be hiding in plain sight. His golf swing might never be the same, but that’s a quintessential Woods public-relations move. 

Woods took part in a media session Wednesday, alongside the other assistant captains from both teams. As far as expansive remarks about his future, the questions might as well have been posed to the Statue of Liberty. He didn’t discuss the arrest or prescription-drug issues.

“I’ve been out of the game for a while,” Woods said Wednesday in his first public comments since April. “First things first: Get my health organized, make sure the pain goes away. Then, basically, just keep waiting for what my surgeon says. I'm still training. I'm getting stronger. But I certainly don't have my golf muscles trained, because obviously, I'm not doing anything golf-related.”

Except watching. And like nearby Lady Liberty, Woods surely will be looming in the background during the NBC/Golf Channel coverage this week, gradually insinuating himself into the game that, in many ways, still is starved for star power. For all the heroics of the younger brigade of Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm and others, the PGA Tour is a Broadway-quality endeavor when Woods is involved. 

“The role that Tiger Woods has sort of moved into in the world of golf is interesting to me because he used to psychologically destroy people,” Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said. “Now he is there to psychologically boost people. And it's possible that he's going to be just as good at boosting the morale of people as he was at destroying it.”

If that view is accurate, Woods could begin rehabilitating his badly soiled reputation, too. Most of the news out of the Woods camp in 2017 has been embarrassing. He signed an equipment-endorsement deal over the winter and played only three competitive rounds before an overly optimistic playing schedule backfired, so to speak, resulting in a spinal-fusion procedure in mid-April. One of his foundation-affiliated PGA Tour events, the Quicken Loans National, lost its host venue and sponsor, not long after his DUI arrest in May, when five drugs were found in his bloodstream, including an opioid medication and the active ingredient in marijuana. 

He failed to attend either of the PGA Tour events in which he is listed as the host. Nude photos of Woods and a former girlfriend appeared on the Internet over the summer. An hourlong feature on Rachel Uchitel, the mistress who in 2009 first exposed the false veneer of Woods’ personal life, aired repeatedly over the summer, bringing back all sorts of memories, none of them good.

The future might not look much better. Woods said Wednesday that he could envision a scenario in which he never again plays because of his physical limitations.

“Definitely,” he said. “I don’t know what the future holds for me.”

While many sponsors and fans find the events of 2017 to be cringe-worthy, in a golf context, his perceived leadership skills nonetheless remain in demand. It’s a safe bet that NBC/Golf Channel will find a way to work him into the live broadcasts, even if it’s merely via fleeting shots of Woods stationed along the ropes in an electric cart – an archetype assassin who was ranked world No. 1 for a record 683 weeks – more than 13 years combined – serving in a clearly subordinate, team-oriented role. 

“I think as much as anything is what you're seeing is simply a player who came out and had his sights set on history and greatness,” Golf Channel analyst David Duval said. “And he had to insulate himself in a certain way, because even when I was No. 1 in the world, I did not have to deal with a fraction of the things that he has to deal with. 

“Time marches on. We all grow. We all change. We learn from our life and our mistakes and our successes.”

Perhaps. For Woods of late, that ledger is running in the wrong direction. Not many redemptive avenues are left open.

“Tiger is the kind of guy that we thought 15 years ago, when he is done, we are never going to see him again,” Golf Channel analyst Justin Leonard said. “Here he is this week as an assistant captain, giving the young guys putting lessons. It is pretty cool.”

It might mean more to Woods than it does to the players.

“I think it’s a form of therapy, as well, for him that’s necessary,” Golf Channel analyst Frank Nobilo said.

Not long ago, Chamblee railed on the air at the notion that Woods should someday serve as captain at one of the annual U.S. team events, given his many scandals of the past decade. Whether a captaincy would be in the future for Woods, despite his tainted brand, is debatable, but his experience and value as a potential resource are unsurpassed.

“It’s irreplaceable,” Duval said. “You’re talking about a titan of the game. He, like all of us, is human. We got to marvel at his brilliance and artistry for so long, and time catches up with all of us, sadly.

“But his desire to be part of American golf and part of these teams moving forward is very commendable. I, for one, as a friend of his, am excited to see it.”

For Woods, showing up this week as a background figure might represent a sobering realization: with his future as a player and pitchman in doubt, it might be all that he has left.

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling