For the better part of an hour, there seemed a genuine possibility that, at any moment, Tiger Woods might grab at his back and crumple to the ground.
Woods exited a cart and walked onto a tee box at Sage Valley Golf Club in Graniteville, S.C., a pristine private club just 20 minutes from Augusta National, where he had failed to play the Masters just two weeks prior.
The date was April 21, and Woods was at Sage Valley to put on a clinic for participants of the Junior Invitational, an event billed as the Masters of junior golf and sponsored by Nike (Rory McIlroy had filled this role in 2015). Just hours before Woods’ arrival, an exhaustive report detailing his personal life following death of his father, Earl, had been released. Rumors were also beginning to swirl about an impending return to competitive play for the 14-time major winner, who was still recovering from a pair of back surgeries.
And here he was, in front of a couple hundred captivated onlookers, casual as could be, preparing to hit balls in pseudo-public.
When Woods reached his stage – an elevated tee in front of a miniature grandstand on a hill – he and longtime friend Notah Begay fell into a familiar banter that ping-ponged between tales of Tiger’s career and their friendship through those years (see, for example, the Pythagorean Theorem story) while Woods made swings.
But it was the walk from the cart to the tee that stood out, how this once-invincible titan looked for a span of 15 yards, moving up a modest incline. A month before he put three balls in the water at Quicken Loans media day, and five months before he called his game “vulnerable,” he looked vulnerable.
He looked like a guy who might tweak something in his back at any time, and he looked like he knew it. He had come from the practice area on the other side of the property – where he spent the afternoon with the tournament participants – and he appeared to have already tightened up after a short cart ride to one of Sage Valley's dormie holes.
Soon enough, he started hitting half-shots with a wedge, as he and Notah laughed and joked and recalled moments of former greatness. The wedges looked fine, as did the short irons. He was flighting them and shaping them on call. Maybe there was something to those return rumors. Maybe he just walked super upright now.
But then he progressed through the bag, and his progress to that point became clear. The ball just wasn’t carrying. There was little to none of the explosion he likes to talk about. There was, however, a fanned 4-iron into the trees on the right. There were the multiple drivers he was testing, which Woods used to explain the inconsistencies in results as he switched clubs. But this is the guy who sat out the entire 2015-16 season and didn’t return to competitive play for another eight months, so those shafts weren’t really the issue.
About an hour after his clinic, Woods walked into one of Sage Valley’s cottages for some more face time with the kids. There was a ping-pong table, two pop-a-shot machines and an XBOX One for the group to mess around with after a question-and-answer session.
As Woods walked towards the cottage, he limped. He wasn’t coming back, at least not for a while.
Instead, Woods spent the rest of his night losing games of doubles ping-pong to a pack of 16-year-olds. On display at that point were the better parts of Tiger in private, after that essay published hours earlier had detailed the worst parts of Tiger in private.
"He was just a normal guy," LSU commit Phillip Barbaree said the next day. "A lot of people think he's not, but with us he was. Maybe it's just easier because there weren't so many cameras around."
He was Tiger Woods, in the most Tiger Woods way possible.