News & Opinion

Pain-free Woods appears eager for what’s next

A vintage Tiger Woods press conference normally would consist of a lot of words but little meat for the media, who often left the interview room shaking their heads.

On Tuesday at Albany Golf Club in New Providence, Bahamas, site of this week’s Hero World Challenge (tee times: http://bit.ly/2idhoEC), Woods presented a sympathetic figure as he talked about his return to competition after a difficult year. It was the most human and insightful he has been in a two-decade career of 79 PGA Tour victories, including 14 major championships.

A genuine and contrite Woods spoke about a life of pain, pills and desperation during the past four years. He expressed uncertainty about his future inside the ropes, but Woods also appeared to be the happiest that he has been in his personal life, maybe ever.

“I’m loving life now,’’ he said.

Woods, who will turn 42 on Dec. 30, is restarting his career – again. That’s nothing new, given his numerous returns from past injuries – at this event last year after another lengthy layoff, in fact – but this time clearly seems different. He spoke about playing golf without pain and enjoying a game that he once dominated but during the past four years has been unable to play at anywhere near the highest level.

“As I was telling a lot of my friends at home, I miss playing golf for fun,” Woods said. “Go out there and hit and giggle and play for some denominations [money] and have a good time. I hadn't done that in two years. I play nine holes here and 18 holes here, and then I have to take three days off because my back was killing me. I hadn't been able to play fun golf like that with my friends in such a long time; forget being competitive.”

Woods underwent spinal fusion surgery in April, the fourth back surgery of his injury-riddled career. Many of his health issues were underestimated and traced to a bad back that resulted from torn Achilles tendons in both legs.

His health issues made normal life difficult and, even after numerous surgeries, barely tolerable.

“The neatest thing for me is to be able to get up out of bed and I can grab a club and not use it as a crutch, OK?” Woods said. “So now I'm able to take a swing. That's so exciting – you have no idea how exciting that is – and I'm just so thankful that I've had this procedure and I've gotten to this point.”

That’s a nebulous timeline for Woods to reference. For the pre-eminent golfer of our time, “this point” could be the middle of his career or it could be near the end.

Woods understands what has come from his previous returns from injury, and the comebacks have not gone well. 

But this time clearly seems different.

The fact that he has traded pain for promise seems to be a sign that he is back, but Woods still is uncertain about what his recovery will look like in the next few months.

“Last year I was still struggling with a little bit of pain,” he said. “I was able to hit some good shots, able to play, but in looking back on it now, I look on it as playing in slow-mo, but it was as hard as I could hit it. I didn't realize how bad my back had become and how much I was flinching and just how slow I was. I didn't realize it, because it's been a slow, degrading process. I thought I had some speed, thought I was playing halfway decent, shot some good scores, but now I've looked back on it and, man, I didn't even have much at all.  

“Now to come out here and be able to do what I've been doing the last few weeks with the guys, it's been a lot of fun. I played some great rounds with the guys at home [in Jupiter, Fla.]. They've been fantastic, to be honest with you, because I've gotten to know a lot of them through the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, and I've really become very close with a few of them,” he said, mentioning Daniel Berger, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas by name.

“It was fun to be able to do that again, which I hadn't done in years.”

While it all sounds good, the bottom line is that golf is a cerebral game, and Woods has not used his mind to win a golf tournament since his five-victory season in 2013.

The reports of his length off the tee have been encouraging. When the adrenaline is pumping and the mask of invincibility no longer is available and he needs to chase down Johnson, Spieth and Thomas, Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in the world rankings, respectively, that is when the world will know whether Woods truly has returned.

But for now, Woods is just happy that he can sit in a chair and go to a restaurant and not feel the pain with which he has lived for years.

He also will have the opportunity to let his children – daughter Sam, 10, and son Charlie, 8 – know what the living legend who is their father can do with a club and ball.

“I never thought my kids have understood what I've been able to do in the game of golf, because they always think I'm the YouTube golfer,” Woods said. “They've never seen me in action. Charlie was there at Akron when I won last time [2013 WGC Bridgestone Invitational], but he doesn't really remember it; he was too young. So, most of the stuff they've watched has been on highlight packages. They've never seen what I can do on a golf course.

“Then when I started coming back for this event, Sam wanted to go out on the golf course with me. She just thought it was so cool I was hitting it where she couldn't see it. She said, ‘How do you see that golf ball?’ I said, ‘It's only going about 320,’ just being a complete smartass about it. Charlie's the same thing. He wants to compete. He wants to play with me. Those are things that are special.”

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli