News & Opinion

Woods looks good for now, but will it last?

MEDINAH, Ill. – I bring news from TigerWorld.

Everything is wonderful; thanks for asking. That’s the company line, anyway.

Tiger Woods is like the stock market these days: volatile. He’s down 700 points one day, up 600 the next. When he won the Masters, TigerMania 3.0 got on a roll not seen since the early 2000s when Amazon sold for $10 a share and most of us weren’t smart enough to jump in – not that I’m still bitter about missing out.

Tiger Woods, with caddie Joe LaCava
Tiger Woods, with caddie Joe LaCava, will need to finish 11th or better this week to advance to next week’s Tour Championship, where he would be the defending champion.

Well, watching Woods – or Consolidated Tiger Industries, if you prefer – is not for reactionaries. Tiger haters are writing him off. Tiger followers think he can win the BMW Championship this week. On the uptick, Woods looked good warming up on the range here Wednesday. He didn’t wince, he played nine holes in the pro-am, teed off at the 10th hole and then only chipped and putted around the greens with his amateur partners on the second nine.

“Played nicely” and “hitting it quite well” were the reports Woods provided. His physical condition, he said, was “way better” than last week, when he withdrew with a strained oblique after one round of the Northern Trust event. He rested for a few days, got treatment and let the injury calm down and now, all is well, he said.

I’ll take him at his word, even though I know from history that isn’t always a great bet.

Woods has entered middle-aged hell for an athlete. As other golfers have learned, the hardest part of coming back from an injury later in a career is that before you can get your game sharp, something else flames out. It’s like driving an old Fiat, once known for being so unreliable that critics said the name stood for Fix It Again Tony.

“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” Woods said. “Things just pop up. That’s been one of the biggest challenges.”

Aging sucks. I saw a T-shirt recently that asked, “Are you tough enough to get old?” Tiger knows exactly what that means at 43.

What struck me Wednesday, however, was how the Tour’s biggest shoes are now on another’s feet. Literally.

They belong to Brooks Koepka, the No. 1 player in the world. Woods is still the most popular player in the game, of course. That clout got him first off the first tee at 6:50 a.m. in the pro-am. Koepka is the game’s current top player, having won four major championships in the past 26 months. That heft got him first off the 10th tee at 6:50. It’s good to be king, and king 1A.

Some said golf’s torch was passed at the PGA Championship in May. That’s when Koepka and Woods were paired and an invigorated Koepka opened with 63-65 and just about ran away from the field at Bethpage State Park. Woods, who was ill, was 17 shots worse, missed the cut and looked like an inferior brand, much the way his opponents looked when compared with Woods during his dominant decade.

It was too early to call that moment a torch-passing when Woods had just won a stunning Masters a few weeks earlier. Now, after months of Woods’ looking physically limited, I’m starting to wonder.

Woods stood on a platform outside the storied Medinah Country Club clubhouse and talked about how he has to keep changing and tweaking his swing to accommodate his surgically-repaired back, and he’s finding that to be difficult. The fact that he still has to evolve his swing is a trend that I find concerning. I hope he doesn’t push his back too hard or too far.

Koepka, meanwhile, finally is getting the recognition that he earned. There was a small moment Tuesday afternoon when I saw him walk past the clubhouse here, followed by a modest posse of fans – mostly kids – trying to get his autograph on Medinah flags and oversized foam golf balls sold in the merchandise tent. Before that last PGA victory, I’ll bet that Koepka could’ve run through a First Tee gantlet without turning a single head.

Then there are his shoes. I said they’re big. What I meant was, they’re noticeable. They are black, silver and white and have “Brooks Knows” in big letters on top, just beneath the laces.

Nike made them for Koepka, whose pro-am team Wednesday morning included athletic legend Bo Jackson. If you’re of a certain age, you remember the marketing fortune Nike mined with its “Bo Knows” campaign. Jackson was/is a man of many sports and skills, having played major-league baseball and football and, much later, archery.

Koepka’s shoes were a nice sign of respect. Or maybe another Nike ad campaign; I don’t know. He plans to wear them again this week.

“It was fun to play with him,” Koepka said of Jackson. “He’s probably the greatest athlete ever, and it was cool to meet him. We talked about his work ethic and what he did when he was playing and had to take care of his body. He’s into biking now.”

Bo knows bikes, too. And now Bo knows Brooks. It’s a nice connection.

Back to the torch: While Koepka is the man to beat, Woods remains golf’s most valuable property in terms of attracting eyeballs and sponsors. Nobody gets more airtime than Woods, even now.

I don’t know whether we’re going to get answers to any of our big Tiger questions this week, such as whether he still can win. We’ll have a better handle on it if he advances to the Tour Championship in Atlanta next week. Since he slipped to 38th on the FedEx Cup points list, he needs to finish 11th or better to crack the top 30 and return to East Lake and the site of what would’ve been his most memorable victory of the last 12 months, if he hadn’t topped it with that Masters stunner.

Another unanswered question is whether Woods will be a playing captain for the U.S. in the Presidents Cup in December. Even if he were to win this week, he can’t break the top eight and land an automatic berth. So, he’s only going to make the team if he can suck up to the captain – himself – for a wild-card pick.

“I’m going to Australia either way,” he said jokingly.

It’s too early to make that call. So, Woods will take it one step at a time at the BMW Championship and see whether he can start out with – and I’m sorry about this, really – a g’day.