DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Of all the subtext associated with Tiger Woods’ historic victory at the 2008 U.S. Open, a list that included a broken leg and ailing knee, it was his friendly rivalry with Roger Federer that went largely overlooked.
Woods’ overtime triumph at Torrey Pines nearly a decade ago moved him to 14 majors for his career, two Grand Slam tilts ahead of the tennis great and fellow Nike athlete.
In a grand game of one-upmanship, it was bragging rights that only a select few would ever understand. Always inclined to give others the needle, one could imagine a classic Tiger text message: “That’s 14, you’re turn.”
In those halcyon days, there was nothing Woods couldn’t do. His ’08 SoCal masterpiece was his fourth victory in his last eight major starts – Jack Nicklaus’ benchmark of 18 overall was easily within sight and Federer, who endured his own share of health issues in ’08, including a season-long bout with mononucleosis and a back injury, seemed destined to spend the rest of his career playing catch up.
So much has changed since then.
A 2009 scandal impacted Woods both on and off the golf course and since that epic shootout with Rocco Mediate in ’08 at Torrey Pines there has been an assortment of surgeries and medical setbacks that have limited him to just 24 major starts.
Federer, on the other hand, tied Woods with 14 majors at the ’09 French Open and on Sunday morning, at 35 years old, he defeated Rafael Nadal in an epic final to claim his 18th Grand Slam title. But it wasn’t the number, a number that Tiger has been married to ever since he won the 1997 Masters, that Woods took away from Sunday’s action in Melbourne.
“Serena [Williams] is a good friend of mine and we were texting back and forth, so very proud of her for what she did [winning major No. 23 in Australia]. And for her to battle through the injuries that she's gone through,” Woods said on Wednesday at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. “It's pretty remarkable that all of them got to that point [the Australian Open finals]: Roger being out for that point, Rafa dealing with injuries; Serena, same thing; and then Venus [Williams] with her autoimmune disease.”
This went well beyond being a fan. This was strangely personal, a glimpse into what the next few years for Woods could look like.
Being Tiger Woods has always been an enigma. Questions earlier in his career focused on his ability to focus in the most pressure-packed situations and execute on cue. In recent years, the dialogue has turned to his health, how his body will withstand multiple swing changes and whether he’d ever catch Nicklaus?
In Federer, Woods could easily see how a kindred spirit navigated a similar career crossroads.
“What Roger has done is he's been dominant for so long, and then to, not only that, to compete against Djoko, to compete against Rafa; and now Andy [Murray] is playing well,” Woods said. “He's had a litany of guys who have won Slams. And no one wins Slams at his age.”
Woods will face a similar litany of challengers in his comeback. Playing with Jason Day and Dustin Johnson last week at the Farmers Insurance Open, his first official start on the PGA Tour in 15 months, certainly served as a quick reintroduction to the modern game.
“I watched Dustin carry a ball last week when it was cold, wet and damp and carried it 335 [yards],” Woods said. “Jason [Day] and I just looked at each other going, ‘We don't have that.’”
But what he has is the accumulated knowledge of two decades on Tour, a rekindled passion for the game and, after Sunday’s final in Australia, a paradigm of hope.
Federer became the oldest player to win a Grand Slam title since 1972 and Venus Williams, who lost to her sister Serena in the women’s final on Saturday, was vying to become the oldest women’s Grand Slam champion at 36.
Federer now wins with a different game than he did earlier in his career, a concept Woods seems to have embraced in this second phase of his own career.
“So you do it differently,” Woods said. “If you look at the list of guys who shot below 60, you realize Jim Furyk's on there twice. He averages 270 off the tee, shoot two rounds under 60. So it can be done different ways.”
But then how Woods gets there, with an off-speed swing that finds more fairways and a short game that still ranks among the game’s best, is secondary to his health.
The only way to win a major championship is to play in a major championship, and everything Woods has done since having multiple back procedures after the 2015 season has been structured to assure longevity as much as competitive lethality, and there may not be a better example of this then Federer.
“For him to come back, after having to take that much time off, and for him to get the timing; that's the hardest part,” Woods said. “He rehabbed properly and you can tell how fast he's moving. He's shortened up points, changed his strategy around a little bit. Didn't hang around the baseline as long. I mean, as you get older, you change your game and you do things slightly differently, and he did that.”
This week’s start in the Middle East, his second of four scheduled events in a five-week window, is another chance to see if Woods can change his own game and get back in the Grand Slam race with Federer.