Nov
28
2017
NINE LIVES (Plus One?): Big Cat ready for yet another comeback
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

Hello from the Albany in the Bahamas! It’s partly sunny, mostly cloudy and rather breezy, but it’s still around 80 degrees. It’s only been “cold” in NYC for a couple of weeks or maybe a month, and I’ll probably regret saying this, but the humidity actually felt nice.

It’s been a rather quiet day at the Hero World Challenge — there were around a handful of guys practicing, but the big event took place mid-morning when tournament host Tiger Woods held his press conference. (I’m not 100% certain, but I’m pretty sure the last time he had an official (solo) presser was in February ahead of the Dubai Desert Classic, and that unfortunately didn’t turn out well (which was IMHO predictable).

The biggest takeaway: Tiger Woods seems genuinely really happy. He was gregarious, all smiles and only once did he give a one-word answer. The past seven years for Tiger has been a rollercoaster and I’ve definitely seen the good, the bad and the ugly, but I don’t recall the last time he was this affable and open. He gave lengthy, thoughtful and honest (as far as I could tell) answers and sometimes even went beyond the scope of the original question. 

(On a personal note, I was correct with my prediction back in March. #FistPump #LameGoals)

Leading into today, there was a ton of hype about Tiger’s return, and everyone needs to take a step back and temper their expectations. We’ve seen this movie before. In fact, it’s a bit of deja vu from last year, except I can’t speak to Tiger’s mood since this is my first time covering the 18-player invitational. Remember when everyone was raving about how well Tiger was striking it and declaring he was going to win the Masters?

I was like, hey, everyone, let’s chill out, this is basically Tiger playing with his buddies and although he did lead the field in birdies and there were positive signs, he still finished 15th. (Which means he only beat three people.) Then he had a couple bad rounds early in 2017 before sitting out the rest of the year until now.

Everyone would love to see Tiger Woods rise from the ashes and return to his form circa 2000 or even before 2009. Judging from my mentions in the past year, even the most fervent Tiger fans have tempered their expectations and put aside the fantasy that he’s going to make a heroic comeback and win another major. Take a deep breath and a step back. I always like to go into most situations with very low expectations, so I don’t get disappointed if the outcome doesn’t turn out well.  (That said, it doesn’t mean I don’t have to pretend to be confident and unfazed because I practically have a PhD when it comes to that department. You know what they say, “fake it, until you make it!”)

Let’s first see how he fares this week in competition — though the atmosphere won’t be all that different than a money game with his tour pro buddies in Jupiter. It made sense last year and it makes sense this year for the same reasons why Woods would aim for a “soft comeback” to test his swing and body — it’s a safe space. (And I don’t mean that in a negative way.) There are only 17 other players; he knows the course and spends time down here; he’s the host of the event that benefits his foundation; no crowds, etc.

Even Tiger wants everyone to chill out and emphasized that it’s only been a month since he’s been playing golf for fun and to give him time to figure out where he’s at and what the future may hold.

 

I’ve said this for a while now, but I’ve lost track of the number of Tiger Woods injuries and comebacks — I just know that I’ve seen a version or adaptation of the same one for seven years, and like most sequels or what-have-you, it’s generally a downhill spiral.

The Associated Press put together a comprehensive list of the number of times Woods has attempted to return from a layoff of 10 weeks or longer, along with the length of absence, cause, result, and length of return, etc. Interesting enough, this is the 10th time in Tiger’s career. There’s a predictable pattern as you go down the list — it’s become much harder to recover and that’s not a surprise because age is always a factor and his body has been deteriorating with time.

I can empathize more than anyone I know in the media center with chronic pain and trying to play competitive golf (on a much lower level, and simply recreational golf) when I don’t know how I’ll feel from one day to the next, let alone one hole or even the next shot. It’s an extremely unsettling experience for any individual, especially if you have exceedingly high expectations.

It’s hard to explain to someone who has never endured an injury that forced them to quit and/or change and prevent a person from recovering to an acceptable and functional condition. Unless you have lived with unbearable pain for extended periods of time, where something as simple as getting out of bed to use the bathroom is a grueling task.

“I was trying to get away from the pain and I was trying to sleep, which I hadn’t done in a very long time because of the things I’ve been dealing with,” said Woods when asked about coming out the other side after a stint in rehab this summer. “So as my back improved, I’ve be been able to start sleeping again because I don’t have the nerve pain going down my leg, I don’t have my leg twitching all over the place, I don’t have these issues anymore. So yeah, I’m loving live now.”

I hear you, Tiger, I hear you.

It’s difficult to not feel like you’re in control of your body and how it will react, and then it’s even more exhausting and hellish when it’s recurring. It impacts every part of your life and mood. It’s the worst in golf when the slightest tweak or slip can completely throw you off, or when you’re constantly having to adjust your swing throughout a round. It certainly makes it tough to commit to a shot and trust it.

I still remember Tiger’s presser at this event in 2015. It was really bleak, and to me, he sounded like a person who had been suffering from various injuries for years and felt despair that no matter how hard he worked to rehabilitate, this was his new normal. He sounded like he had come to terms that he had done everything possible in his control, which is really difficult for a perfectionist and overachiever, like Tiger. I thought he was ready to hang up the clubs after that presser.

But here we are, two years later, Tiger has been through hell and back. He had the embarrassing DUI incident and those gut-wrenching videos from the dashcam and the police station that were so uncomfortable to watch. He’s survived those unfortunate very public incidents and he says he’s not taking any medication aside from anti-inflammatories. I’m sure that was a battle given what the toxicology report revealed from his arrest earlier this year.

With the ups-and-downs Tiger has experienced, he has shown tons of character and how much fight he has in him. It’s been painful as observers to have a front-row seat for the past seven years to some of his worst moments on the golf course. He had a different vibe today. I mean, he’s become more “human” and personable over the years, but then he’ll have a tough day and close off because it sucks talking about it all the time and it’s even worse to feel like shit.

This sounds so freaking cheesy and sappy, and I can’t believe I’m going to actually type these words, but I honestly just want him to be at peace and happy. He had a distinct energy about him Tuesday morning — it was similar to the friendly, affable Tiger Woods I ran into at his book signing in NYC back in March, but this was a couple of notches beyond that.

“I always knew that I was — I always thought that I was tough mentally,” said Woods, who paused for a moment long enough to show vulnerability. “My dad always thought so as well. Going through all this just reaffirmed that.”

You do you, Tiger; you do you.

Let’s hope this Tiger is here to stay — either on or off the golf course and as a competitor and/or mentor/captain.

As his daughter Sam pointed out, her dad is a living legend.

“I said (to my daughter about Messi), ‘Isn’t it neat to be a living legend?’ She said, ‘Yeah, we live with one.’

“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. They’ve never seen me in action.”

We’ve known Tiger has been “human” for a while now, but in the past he’s always dressed in full body armor with his guard on high alert. But hey, maybe I’m reading too much into things because I’ve just missed Big Cat so much. I doubt that is the case, though.

—-

Here are some of the highlights from his upbeat presser:

*On how this year is different than the last:

“Last year I was still struggling with a little bit of pain and I didn’t know — 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. 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 Cups and I’ve really become very close with a few of them. I played golf with Rory. I played golf with Berger, JT, Rickie, Dustin, and it was fun. It was fun to be able to do that again, which I hadn’t done in years.”

*On whether he has to reinvent the way he prepares and plays for a tourney: 

“For the body I have now, I don’t know. I’m winging this by here because I don’t know what my body can and can’t do yet. I just got the go-ahead a little over a month ago, but I still don’t know. I was saying to you guys, I don’t have any pain anymore in my back. I have some stiffness, like no duh, it’s fused.

“So I’m learning that, what my body can’t do yet and what it can do. Just going to take a little bit of time. The people who have had my procedure of L5-S1, the average age is 58. Me being 41, 17 years younger, most of the people who have had it, like for instance Lanny and Lee, they were well past their playing days when they had the procedures done. I’m still right in my playing years and so it’s hard for me to ask people what were you experiencing because they weren’t going at velocity at that age.”

*On not realizing how bad his back had gotten:

“No, I didn’t realize the slow degrading nature of my back and how bad it got to. I didn’t realize that because it was a slow process and I just didn’t — I didn’t really understand how far I’ve fallen in that regard and what my back was not allowing me to do. That’s why now I look back on those days and I’m just, man, I don’t know how I was able to do it, how I was able to compete and play even back in like ’13, I was still struggling back then. You saw me fall to my knees at Liberty National getting that shot of pain right down my leg and never went away, so it started back in those days. To live with that for the last four years like that, that’s not been fun.”

*On what it’s like to wake up and be able to trust his golf, rather than how his body reacts to playing golf:

“Well, Steph, 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. 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.”

*On being pain-free but still feeling discomfort and the extent of it:

“It’s not pain as I said, I’m just stiff. So even at the Presidents Cup, you guys asked me about that, what does your future entail. I don’t know because I wasn’t allowed to hit golf balls yet. I was giving you the answer that I really don’t know until I start hitting shots. Even when I start hitting shots, I remember my 9-iron. Oh, yeah, you’re clear to hit short irons. Okay, first 9-iron went maybe 80 yards. I was just afraid to hit it.

“And then as I got through the practice session, I started getting more comfortable, the next day I was full out and they gave me the long irons and they gave me the woods. Then I asked him, Can I hit a flighted 2-iron again, drop down hit the stinger? He said, Absolutely, you’re fused, go. Trust me I didn’t really put the full speed into it until I felt comfortable with it. And it took time.

“As I said, I’ve only been doing this for a month, so give me a little bit more time, a little better understanding, and especially let me play this event and see what I can and can’t do. I’ll have a better understanding once I’m in game speed. I know I’ve always hit it harder come game time because of adrenaline and I’m looking forward to it and I’m also looking forward to see how I feel.”