News & Opinion

Maturity, renewed purpose propel Woods

PARAMUS, N.J. – For so long, he has been The Man. Until recently, that distracted us from understanding the man.

Tiger Woods met the media Tuesday morning here at Ridgewood Country Club, venue for this week’s Northern Trust, the first of four FedEx Cup playoff tournaments on the PGA Tour (tee times). Woods, 42, stepped into the shaded quick-quotes area appended to the old stucco clubhouse and confronted what he is trying to do: play golf that is worthy of him for five of the next six weeks. That’s three survive-or-go-home playoff events, then a week off, then the Tour Championship in Atlanta, and finally golf’s most prestigious international cup competition, in which he originally was expected to serve merely as a vice captain.

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Tiger Woods acknowledges Tuesday that he is about to play ‘a lot of golf’ as the PGA Tour playoffs begin this week at Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J.

MORNING READ/ADAM BARR
Tiger Woods acknowledges Tuesday that he is about to play ‘a lot of golf’ as the PGA Tour playoffs begin this week at Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J.

“I'm playing the first three right now, and that should get me into Atlanta, and on the back side is obviously the Ryder Cup,” he said. “Yeah, that is a lot of golf.”

Woods hasn’t attempted a similar run since 2013. He capped that five-in-seven-weeks run with a 4-1-0 Presidents Cup performance in a three-point U.S. team victory at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio. But since then, he has undergone four back surgeries, the most recent in April 2017. And the left knee? That’s a whole separate history dating to 1994.

Woods understands what that means.
 

“I don’t know how many years I have left,” said Woods, who owns 79 Tour victories and 14 major championships, ranking second all-time in both categories. “I’m certainly not like I was when I was 22. Forty-two; it’s a different ballgame.”

But he didn’t say this in a tone of lament. Rather, he springboarded to possibility and the ways stories can end differently than expected.

“To have a winless year, but to go through what I've gone through – I didn't know if I was going to play last year. I didn't know if I was ever going to play again. I was just hoping to be able to play golf with my kids and with my buddies at home. I wasn't thinking about the Tour, and now here I am contending in major championships and had a chance to win a couple major championships. [A]s I've said before, this has been a blessing, but man, it's been so special to have this opportunity again.”

Woods’ physical history, plus the continuous burden of enormous stardom, would be enough to clobber other athletes – good athletes – into golf’s version of an easy chair: golf cart, driver’s side, stiff legs crossed in an attempt at relaxation, earpiece in, chatting in a low voice about pairings for the next day.

Not Woods. For better or worse – and there’s a smorgasbord of opinions among fans and cognoscenti as to which, and why – he’s here to stay. For as long as possible. Propelled by recent good performances, especially laser-like iron play at the PGA Championship, today’s Tiger is a mix of buoyancy and gravitas, of confidence and quiet, of hope and…

Well, maturity.

The sculptures hewn from the rock of sports stardom don’t age well. It’s hard for people who once lionized a young lion to allow him or her to be anything else. The quizzical outrage that accompanied Michael Jordan’s foray into baseball after making basketball history, the alcoholic deterioration of Mickey Mantle’s pure baseball talent in later years – such things confuse fans and make them pine for the simplicity of the old days. Say Hey, Steel Curtain, Bird on the parquet. Why can’t it be like that again?

People grow, bodies change, missteps happen. Goals adjust. The Tiger 2.0 headlines started as early as 2007 (there’s a piece in the Sports Illustrated vault), before his game and personal troubles loomed. Fact is, as he has matured from phenom to dominator to fatherless to father, we have never quite known what to do with him as a person or a golfer. So, true to Tiger form, he has taken control. He has grown himself up.

The Woods of 2018 is not a comeback. There is no Tiger 2.0. He may have softened in some ways – his demeanor, anyway – but he's not software, with bug fixes and versions. The subtext of his language, his body language, the conversations he has with his body are about maturation, not reinvention.

What does that mean for golf? Stardom again? Maybe. Legacy? Perhaps.

Excitement and the drama that comes from striving? That’s the best bet. Anyone watching Sunday of the PGA Championship and second-screening social media at the same time could feel the molten bubbling of possibility as iron after iron stuck close to the hole, sizzling with spin and staying put. Even the Woods skeptics felt the tingle. So did he.

“Pretty much most of the year has been dialed in,” he said Tuesday of his iron play. Then, with clear satisfaction in his voice: “You know, when I can start flighting the ball like I am and shaping it either way, I really can control my trajectories, any shot I want – then it’s pretty good.”

But the mind – the quest. Is it still there, that hunger that was always a part of the Woods whom we knew? Apparently, yes. He described the validation of splitting the fairway with his drive on No. 15 in the fourth round of the PGA Championship after his bogey on 14, then moved on to what stuck with him about almost catching eventual winner Brooks Koepka.

“[I hit] a bad drive there at 17 and to fight for a par there, to give myself an opportunity going down 18 – that felt good,” said Woods, pausing for a moment as if to savor a sublime taste. “Just the fight coming in like that, and [to have] birdied two of the last four holes, that really did feel good.”

That’s not “second sucks.” It’s not get-in-line-so-I-can-step-on-your-neck. It’s successes, slip-ups, suffering and searching coming together to make a man. A man with years left, and skill aplenty, with an aversion to sitting still in golf carts.

Adam Barr has surveyed golf for 25 years as a print and broadcast journalist (Golfweek, Golf Channel), an equipment company executive, and with the USGA as director of communications and its museum. He lives in Basking Ridge, N.J. Email: adambarr1@gmail.com; Twitter: @ABNarratesBooks