A defining trait of the first decade of Tiger Woods’ career is that he took situations that felt like they needed a miracle and made them inevitable. This happened time and again and without fail. This ball is in a funky lie on the side of bunker and needs to fly 200 yards to get to the green? That seems impossible but it’s definitely happening. This putt from 40 feet is like a 1-in-20 chance but it’s definitely going in to force a playoff. These situations ranged from specific shots to entire rounds to entire months, and Tiger just overwhelmed the odds with an inevitability that never quite computed.
After the last five years of back surgeries, golf embarrassments and personal embarrassments, it seemed likely last summer that Tiger would never play competitive golf again. The thought that he would win again was a hopelessly romantic notion. The thought that he would win a major again was the province of only the most delusional and scary Tiger-fanboy corners of the Internet.
We overhype and over-critique everything related to Woods. Trying to seriously frame an accomplishment or failure in the world of Tiger, which has a 20-year library of overhype and overreaction, is fraught with pitfalls. Tiger left without the Claret Jug on Sunday. In a prior act of his career, that would be a failure. Now? The experience of the day, the solo lead on the back nine of a major, is a triumph.
These last five years of injuries and ignominy were an inexorable plunge on the way to forced retirement and disappearance from public life. A year ago, the proper position was that it would take a miracle for Tiger to win again. It now feels inevitable that he’s going to win again, maybe as soon as next week at Firestone. I don’t know that it’s going to happen, but it feels like it will. And Tiger just getting us back to that feeling is one of the great achievements of his career.
Here are five more thoughts on Tiger’s Sunday at the Open.
1. I think Tiger set out the template for how he’s going to try and do this going forward. It’s far different than how he won his first 14 majors and also a sign that greatest golf mind ever has been re-activated.
It was fascinating to hear him say he was trying to “build his way” into the championship. When he was 30, he’d grab control of a major over the first two days, hold a nice cushion, and spend the weekend slowly bleeding out the rest of the field. He’s never won a major coming from behind, but in all likelihood, that’s what he’s going to have to do to get one in this late stage of his career. There’s too much talent in the game now and Tiger is not capable of dominating a major like used to.
This week he hung back for two days, then got super aggressive in the middle of his Saturday round to charge into contention, and started Sunday letting the leaders fall apart ahead of him. It worked for 64 holes.
2. In the moment, Tiger’s round was a fun Sunday high. All the soaring words about how great it was to have him leading on Sunday of a major again were appropriate, even in the overwrought world of Tiger. After coming down from the high though, it also feels appropriate to acknowledge that Tiger has a problem on the closing stretches of tournaments.
The intervening injuries and miserable play of the last five years obscured the fact that this was also mayyyybe kinda sort of a problem back in 2013 when he was healthy and generally playing well, as he did this week. It’s really been an issue throughout the post-hydrant era (Alan Shipnuck’s term), certainly at the majors.
Golf Channel’s postgame show, Live From The Open, heaped praise on how Tiger swung and looked on Sunday. But they also entered a few things into evidence to support the argument that he is still having trouble closing. Brandel Chamblee said he hit five or six fairways on every nine this week, until the final nine, when he hit just one. He’s also made a whole bunch of messes all season on the final 9 of 72 holes. There was that ball he pumped out-of-bounds at Bay Hill. And the water balls at The Players.
Here’s a graphic from the segment, which I think is worth watching for even the most ardent Tiger truthers.
This is not just to pour cold water on a great day. On balance, Tiger’s Open, and his entire season, is an amazing accomplishment. But once he had the solo lead and we got to the back nine, the charge went off the rails with a 3-over stretch in two holes. It’s worth acknowledging that recent history as you examine if and when and where Tiger can win again.
3. I am going to detour into the feelings zone so if it gets a little too treacly for you, feel free to hop off and meet us up at the next stop. I won’t be offended.
The odds are, you will never be able to do a thing as well as all of these pro golfers do their one thing. Some fly around the world in private jets. They make great money playing a game. It’s not a relatable existence. But most of them, even the richest and most talented, have a relatable tentacle of some sort.
Tiger Woods is not one. He’s been groomed in a bubble to be a golfer since he was a toddler. His social life was abnormal or nonexistent. Then he became the most famous athlete in the world and it became even more abnormal, and shielded. Tiger is an ultra-famous automaton that doesn’t seem relatable in any way.
My five-year-old is starting to watch pro golf, pick up some of the names, and get into it a little bit. He watched Sunday and when I put him to bed, he exclaimed, “Hey did you know Tiger Woods is a dad and a golfer?” He was so excited to tell me this and discover it on Sunday when he saw Tiger with his kids after the round.
Tiger-as-dad is the most relatable part of the 14-time major winner. In his post-round press conference, talking about his kids and putting on that Sunday show for them, was the most emotional I can recall seeing him since he won his last Open. That was 2006, his first major after his dad’s death, and he burst into tears on his caddie’s shoulder. At this press conference, he had to stop, his eyes got a little watery, he gulped multiple times, and he had to slowly push out his thoughts.
“I told them I tried,” he said about meeting his kids on the 18th green. “I know that they know how much this championship means to me and how much it feels good to be back playing again. It’s so special to have them aware because I’ve won a lot of golf tournaments in my career but they don’t remember any of them. For them to understand, what I was doing early in my career, the only thing they’ve seen are my struggles.”
This is a variation of what Tim Rosaforte relayed before the round and what Tiger told us last November, when he said his kids have only known him as a “YouTube golfer.” Watching him get emotional about his kids was relatable. That stated reward of being able to show out for them feels genuine, and motivating.
4. We’re off the saccharine stuff and on to an important investigation that the R&A, and really the entire country of Scotland, must commence at once, if they haven’t already. Have we ferreted out who shouted from the corporate chalets in the middle of Tiger’s back swing on the 18th tee? We can track down anything with today’s technology. I’m assuming we can isolate at least which corporation had that specific chalet. My money would be on a little outfit out of Austria, Red Bull GmbH, and I’d expect nothing but the harshest sanctions.
5. Tiger keeps repeating that this year is a “gift” and a blessing. He said the thought of even playing in the British Open, let alone leading on a Sunday, seemed unlikely to him at the end of 2017, as he waited to see if he’d ever be able to take full golf swings again.
Golf was in a fine spot with so many young superstars. The game is as deep as its ever been. The Tiger era was an anomaly you can’t replicate. Those TV ratings are not coming back and it’s futile to try and force it with this next generation of stars. But the gift, for that next generation and us, is that we now have a competitive Tiger actually joining the battle in a real way.
With Tiger back playing well, some of the young stars are more candid about just how uncompetitive he was the last few years. Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, and Justin Thomas, who played with him off-camera down in South Florida, have all hinted at it with some gentle “yeahhhhh it wasn’t very good” comments. They have said they wanted the “real” Tiger back on a leaderboard so they could face him.
Now they’re getting it. We had Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, and Tiger Woods all on one leaderboard on Sunday. That is a gift, y’all. The younger players seem to know it, too. Jack Nicklaus would always talk about how he’d look at a leaderboard and only pick one or two players (and sometimes none) that really worried him and he felt he needed to beat. McIlroy said he now throws Tiger in with the DJs, Spieths, JTs et al as one of the real contenders he looks for on a leaderboard. Spieth was straight-up grinning as he recalled a discussion he had with his caddie when they looked up at the leaderboard and saw Tiger coming at them. Not getting profound here but: That is very cool.
Those are two already Hall-of-Famers, 15 to 20 years younger than Tiger, relishing the experience of Sunday almost as much as the fans watching from home. Tiger coming back and being competitive in any context is an incredible story. The cross-generational battles it might yield, however, should not be an overlooked side effect. Players like Spieth and Rory make the Tiger comeback even more appealing, positioning him as this old man underdog,
We may never get Sunday at the Open again. That may be Tiger’s last, best chance at a major before some other injury creeps in or his game recedes or the younger players just run away from him. But it’s unlikely. It seems like we’re going to get Tiger in contention again with some consistency. He has turned what a year ago felt like a fantasy — real, competitive golf, Sunday back nine major leads — into a feeling of inevitability. Whether he wins another major or not, in the context of this stage of his career, for that reason alone, he’s back.