Tiger Woods was sizing up a five-foot par putt in the Bahamas two weeks ago when a small woman in a beige sun hat leaned in for a closer look.
She had followed Woods countless times, but she remained interested in the 40-year-old’s every step.
As soon as Woods struck the ball, she broke the silence.
“In,” Tida Woods, Tiger’s mother, said before the ball dropped into the hole. She turned away and disappeared back into the Bahamian gallery.
All throughout the week at the Hero World Challenge, there were echoes of a time gone by. The greatest player of his generation, raised from the crib to be a champion, broke a 466-day leave of absence with his most emphatic flourishes since he was the game’s No. 1 player three years ago.
The week was tantalizing, rife with rust and double bogeys but also more birdies than anyone. (“Only Tiger Woods could take a year and a half off and put up the numbers he’s putting up,” said the eventual Hero champion, Hideki Matsuyama.)
Woods was far more than a surgically-repaired legend playing out the string. He was a confident shot-maker spinning clubs and turning heads. He was at ease throughout the week, cracking jokes with Patrick Reed, poking fun with reporters (and at himself about his world ranking, which shot up 248 spots, to 650, after the tournament.)
What it means for his final act, however, remains murky, no matter how powerful the nostalgia.
The PGA Tour is overflowing with youngsters who crave the power game and long gym session that Woods once did.
By his own admission, Woods can no longer beat balls for hours on end, nor can he log 30 miles of runs in a week.
But he does have new motivation beyond the resumption of major championship glory.
One Woods confidant in the Bahamas said Woods’s children – who were too young to enjoy his dominant years - are his primary inspiration these days.
Woods also has the perspective that comes with age, accomplishment and defeat, both on and off the course. Through long stretches of doubt, he has rebuilt a body, a golf game and a life.
“I can’t imagine from where he was in the early 2000s, arguably the best to ever play the game, to having to deal with struggle,” said Rickie Fowler, a frequent practice partner of Woods in Jupiter, Fla. “Not being able to put the same move on the ball and hit the same shots he’s used to seeing, and to be patient and go through that whole process and wait until he was ready to make that progress in the last few months. It’s not surprising, but it’s impressive.”
The significance of a 15th place finish in a field of 17 players (many of them counting down the days to Christmas) is unclear, but many of Woods’s peers saw a turning point in his career in the Bahamas.
One year ago at the same venue, he moved stiffly around the golf course, going through his hosting duties while wondering out loud if he would ever play again.
His comeback included months of tiny, tedious repetitive movements to strengthen a back that had been operated on three times.
At the Ryder Cup, after a week of hugs and chest bumps, he postponed a long-awaited comeback at the Safeway Open in October, when he described his game as “vulnerable.”
To some, it was stunning choice of words, an admission of fragility from the player once considered the most mentally tough.
“Napa, as interesting as that was, a nick in the armor, ‘I’m not ready to do this in front of people,’ he’s now shown that he didn’t really care what anybody else was going to think,” Jordan Spieth said. “He wanted to make sure that he was going to come back and be as confident as possible.”
Said Woods: “I wanted to have a more well-rounded game. I just felt like, ‘What’s the point?’ My competitive juices said ‘You can pull this off,’ but why pull it off instead of being more ready? I think I did the right thing.”
Upon his return, Woods showed bursts of the old brilliance, in particular a bogey-free round of 65 in the second round punctuated by par saves reminiscent of his game at its height.
And though he is more than three years removed from his last win – and nearly nine from his last major – he has a new incentive that could boost him.
“Golfers play for different reasons in their 20s, 30s and 40s and these changes are developmentally predetermined,” said Dr. Gio Valiante, the sports psychologist and author who once interviewed 100 golfers for a study in 2002 on golfers and inspiration. “Jack Nicklaus said the hardest thing is finding motivation over a long career.”
In 2002, at age 26, Woods had finished off a run of seven major titles in 11 starts.
“In his 20s, Tiger’s motivation was to see how good he could be, to actualize his talent,” Valiante said. “In the 30s, it shifted during the dark years. It went from mastery to ego. ‘I want to beat that guy.’ His demise was preceded by a loss of motivation. When motivation left him, so did his ability to be great.”
But Valiante sees another shift in motivation for Woods now, just as Jay Haas found a spark in his own game as his son, Bill, neared the PGA Tour, or Mark O’Meara, a practice partner and father figure to Woods, raised his level to win two majors in 1998 at age 41.
“You can have high desire, but if it’s for the wrong reasons, that leads to bad outcomes,” Valiante said. “Wanting your kids to see you be great is a natural and healthy source of motivation.”
Woods beams at the mention of his children, Sam and Charlie, the latter of who finished tied for second in a junior golf tournament in West Palm Beach, Fla., in June.
In the Bahamas, Woods told the story of the two Scotty Cameron putters he doesn’t allow 7-year-old Charlie to touch. The clubs combined to win 14 majors.
“Touch any other putter, do anything you want with any other putter,” Woods said. “These putters are off-limits. These two, Daddy only.”
A renewed drive alone won’t bring birdies or good health, but victory seems farfetched without it.
Woods left the Hero World Challenge in a better place than he arrived. He knows there are those who believe he will win more majors and others who say he is finished.
“It’s noise and you block out the noise,” Woods said. “My job is to go out and execute and win golf tournaments.”
It sounded so familiar, one last reverberation, with a legend trying to keep his hold on the game for just a bit longer.