News & Opinion

Golf turns red again in ‘Year of Tiger’

With apologies to the Chinese zodiac calendar, 2018 was the Year of Tiger, not the dog. After stirring memories again at the Hero World Challenge in late 2017 that his surgically-repaired back might hold up, Woods looked to reignite his playing career yet again, and I enjoyed an inside-the-ropes view for much of it. Woods is good for business, especially the golf-writing business.

But when Woods missed the cut by a mile at the Genesis Open, his second start of the season, it felt like I'd seen this movie before. Nothing was more painful to watch than the season of 2015, when a case of the chipping yips meant that Woods barely could crack an egg. Yet Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas, who had played with Woods at Riviera in February, kept saying they thought he was close, and it didn't feel as if they were just pandering to their fallen idol.

The scene three weeks later, when Woods played his way into contention at the Valspar Championship near Tampa, bordered on a religious revival for golf's lord and savior. Woods looked reborn, with clubhead speed resembling that of his prime, and his fans lost their mind every time he pumped his fist. When he chipped in from off the green at the ninth hole on Saturday, the place exploded and raised the hairs on the back of my neck. He ultimately tied for second. If he had made a few putts that week, I thought, he would have won by six.

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Tiger Woods restores the roar in golf, attracting immense crowds – notably here at the Ryder Cup in France – whenever he teed it up in 2018.

© GOLFFILE/FRAN CAFFREY
Tiger Woods restores the roar in golf, attracting immense crowds – notably here at the Ryder Cup in France – whenever he teed it up in 2018.

That Sunday at Innisbrook Resort began a surprising trend of Woods’ getting into the trophy hunt, but not closing the deal. Needing birdie to force a playoff, Woods showed that he still didn't have confidence in his driver when he teed off with a 2-iron at the final hole. Two weeks earlier, he had dunked balls into the water at the Honda Classic, and he would similarly misfire in May at No. 17 at TPC Sawgrass when he sniffed the lead at the Players. He also snap-hooked a tee shot at 16 at Bay Hill to spoil his pursuit at one of his favorite hunting grounds. After that tee shot, I drifted back with another writer to watch McIlroy, who was making a Sunday charge that would've made tournament namesake the late Arnold Palmer proud. How big of a story was the Woods comeback? We were the only two media members, other than NBC's foot soldier assigned to the group, to witness McIlroy chip in for birdie at 15, which essentially locked up the victory.

The all-Tiger, all-the-time mentality meant that I also was the only media member on the first tee with the leaders on Sunday at Bay Hill, which became a recurring theme. Woods was – and is – the story again. That week, reporters flew in from around the country and abandoned their spring-training beats, anticipating his first victory. At least we were watching. The PGA Tour relaxed its cellphone policy since back surgery No. 4 for Woods, which fused vertebrae in April 2017. In a sign of the times, fans have become so consumed with snapping selfies and videos to post on their social-media accounts that hardly anyone seems to be paying attention to where the ball goes anymore. It's no longer enough to say that you were there; it's as if it didn't happen unless there is visual proof.

At the Masters, Woods was let down by his iron game. At the Wells Fargo and Players, it was a balky putter. He looked as if he might be putting the pieces together at the Memorial until two three-putt bogeys over the final three holes on Saturday left him signing for one of the most disappointing 68s of his career. When I asked whether he thought his game was good enough to win right now, Woods didn't mince words.

"Well, I was at 11 under par, and I had wasted a bunch of shots the last two days and I was 4 over par in the first round, so you do the math," he barked.

You do the math. Until that moment, Woods had shown incredible patience with his comeback. It was “a process,” as he often repeated. He was seeking comfort and familiarity with a new swing. So, it was good to see his chili running hot. It was good to see how much he still cared about winning. In case I needed further proof, his response told me that he wouldn't stand for being a ceremonial golfer.

Bryson DeChambeau ended up winning that week. What struck me was that even after he shot 66 on Saturday to grab a one-stroke lead, he hit balls and studied his swing on his iPad until after 8 p.m. He said he'd have to shoot 54 to go straight to the car.

"He'd still hit one ball," caddie Tim Tucker said.

Some call DeChambeau “The Mad Scientist,” and others “The Artist.” Woods calls him “Rainman.” I think DeChambeau might be the most interesting man in golf.

I won't bother rehashing the sordid incident of Phil Mickelson defiantly striking a moving golf ball on the 13th green in the third round of the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, but you might find this sequence of events telling. After Mickelson skied to an opening-round 77, he didn't meet with the media. He shot 69 the next day to make the cut, and when he faced the media, he did a curious thing. He hijacked his news conference to make one thing clear. "So, I didn't stiff anybody yesterday," he said. "Nobody asked me to come here. I would have been happy to come. Some people thought I was not talking. I'm happy to talk, but you got to ask. I'm not going to hunt you down."

Well, if you believe that answer, I've got a wonderful piece of swampland to sell you.

After his moment of madness the next day, Mickelson sat in the scoring hut for 45 minutes before facing the music. He should've pled temporary insanity. With seemingly the entire media contingent waiting to hear whether he would double down on his comments from a day earlier or sheepishly admit the error of his ways (in other words, no hunting us down required), Mickelson took the Fifth and stiffed us again.

Woods, on the other hand, never was more vulnerable, at ease or forthcoming with the media, which are words I never thought I'd type. I also can think of several moments when I witnessed a more likeable and approachable Woods, but none illustrated the change better than a moment missed by the TV cameras after the second round of the Quicken Loans National. Woods had played that morning with Bill Haas, who chopped it around TPC Avenal Farms and was in the midst of the worst season of his career. When Woods popped out of the scoring area, he was expected to go through the Tour's car wash of media stops. But first, he pulled Haas aside and offered an impromptu swing lesson. The old Tiger would have told an opponent good luck playing for second. He never would have lent a helping hand.

My top memory of the year? It has to be the scene at 18 at the Tour Championship as Woods clinched his 80th Tour victory. Fueled by alcohol and a moment of jubilation, Tiger-palooza broke out as fans breached the security cordon and overwhelmed the marshals and law officers. It was pandemonium, and I feared for my safety (a barrel-chested police officer who looked like every bouncer at a biker bar didn't seem too interested in my inside-the-ropes badge as he nearly knocked me to the ground) as the masses rushed the fairway to pay tribute to his return to greatness, chanting "Ti-ger! Ti-ger!" Matt Kuchar, who wasn't even in the 30-man field, drove over to East Lake to witness the moment with many of the pros who hung around to see history being made. Woods had defied his doubters yet again. He made Sundays great again.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak