NASSAU, Bahamas – He buzzed around Albany Golf Club in a golf cart, glad-handed corporate guests and played the role of tournament host with surprising ease.
Last week’s Hero World Challenge will be the last time Tiger Woods will be seen publically in his 30s, a milestone that has taken on added relevance following two back surgeries in the last three months and his most recent indefinite stay on the disabled list.
Speculation, which always rages wildly when it comes to Woods, ranged from a possible return to the PGA Tour by early next year (Florida swing?) to a more prolonged absence (the U.S. Open?), but after watching Woods gingerly make the rounds last week at Albany, it’s seems as if there were no guarantees he’ll be in the field next year when the World Challenge returns to the Bahamas.
“That's the hardest part for me is there's really nothing I can look forward to, nothing I can build towards,” Woods said. “It's just taking it literally just day by day and week by week and time by time.”
But then, another prolonged hiatus from the game is nothing new when it comes to Woods, who hasn’t played a full season on Tour since 2013. What was different was the relative ease with which he appears to be settling into a new role.
When Davis Love III named Woods one of his vice captains for next year’s Ryder Cup, the initial surprise was mitigated, at least partially, by his insistence that he intended to be a “playing” vice captain.
Last week’s press conference, however, seemed to cast Woods in a slightly different light. At 39 - to be fair the guy doesn’t turn 40 until Dec. 30 - he still has plenty of time to change his competitive fortunes, if he’s healthy.
It’s the ultimate qualifier that has become as much a part of Woods’ legacy as those 14 major championships and 79 Tour victories.
“You know, it's tough, it's tough to see,” Jordan Spieth said. “You just hope he gets healthy. He really has his head around making sure that he takes his time getting back because he's still got a lot of good years ahead of him in my mind as long as he approaches it the right way, and I don't know what that is.”
The world No. 1 was 15 years old the last time Woods won a major, world No. 2 Jason Day was a Tour rookie when Tiger won that 2008 U.S. Open and No. 3 Rory McIlroy joined the Tour two years later.
None of the current “big three” have played Woods at his best, at least not in the Grand Slam events which have been the central theme of his career.
Instead, the current wave of players seem to view Woods in much broader terms, beyond the limits of his competitive achievements. Even Bubba Watson, Sunday’s champion at the World Challenge who is just two years younger than Woods, took a telling view of Woods when asked about his own long-term goals.
“Truthfully, my goals in my career have changed over the years,” Watson said. “Watching Tiger Woods, what he's done for the people off the golf course, my goal is now stretched to that. I think I can do more off the golf course.”
Woods himself alluded to a possible next chapter, at least in general terms, last week in a rare moment of nostalgia that was fueled by the uncertainty of his current medical issues.
“I'm hoping that I can get back out here and compete against these guys. I really do miss it. That's fun,” he said. “But if that's not the case anymore, then I'll find other avenues, that being growing my foundation, what we're trying to do, golf course design or other projects I have going on right now that will certainly take up more of my time.”
That’s not to say Woods should be viewed in any way less than the sum of his Hall of Fame parts, just differently. After three back surgeries and with his golf activities limited to driving a golf cart, it’s only natural to embrace the realities of your situation.
Watching Woods carefully examine Zach Johnson’s putter last week, it’s clear the game still calls to him and if he needed a paradigm of competitive hope he should look no further than friend Davis Love III, who at 51 years old won the Wyndham Championship to close last season.
“Obviously it's frustrating for him,” Spieth said. “But I think we certainly haven't seen the end of him even if he does say that if the sun sets on the career now, it's still good. I think we can all read between the lines there, that he's still got some really good years left.”
Whether Woods is truly at peace with his evolving role in the game doesn’t really matter, at least not until he’s able to play his way back to some sort of competitive relevance. But as another frustrating year drew to a close, what was striking is how content he seems to be settling into whatever the next chapter may bring.