Tiger's impending return sparks interest, intrigue


Since Tiger Woods last hit a golf shot that mattered on the PGA Tour, Dustin Johnson won a U.S. Open, Jordan Spieth lost a Masters and Nike Golf lost interest in making equipment.

It will be 417 days between the time Woods putted out at the 2015 Wyndham Championship and his next shot at the Safeway Open in October.

During that span, Woods turned 40, was named a vice captain for this year’s U.S. Ryder Cup team and watched as golf’s landscape transitioned to a star-by-committee.

But the most interesting element that arose from a busy Wednesday in golf was that over the last 13 months Woods has developed an impressive amount of patience.

What else would explain his measured approach to return to the game following two back procedures last year? How else could one interpret Wednesday’s news that Woods hopes to play not one, but three events before the end of the year?

“My rehabilitation is to the point where I’m comfortable making plans, but I still have work to do,” said Woods, who plans to play the PGA Tour’s season-opener, a European Tour event in Turkey and his own Hero World Challenge before the calendar expires. “Whether I can play depends on my continued progress and recovery. My hope is to have my game ready to go.”

“Hope” was the key portion of Woods’ message.

At this point in his career, at this point in what has been an eventful decade, Woods seems resigned to the unseen hand of fate.

Things have clearly been moving in the right direction back home on his private practice range in Jupiter, Fla. – by most accounts he’s not spending much time playing in public – but after more than a year on the DL he’s not dismissing the prospect of a wrong turn.

It was a subtle part of Woods’ otherwise positive message on Wednesday.

After spending far too much time ignoring his doctors, Woods seems to have become a model patient either by necessity or choice, not that it really matters if he was forced or arrived willingly at his current crossroads.

Whatever Woods has become over the last 13 odd months, he’s still a competitor driven to push himself and his game against the world’s best, and sitting on the sidelines watching the world move on couldn’t have been easy.

The new guy, let’s call him Tiger 4.0, clearly didn’t like being a bystander to history, but he didn’t have many options.

“It was difficult missing tournaments that are important to me, but this time I was smart about my recovery and didn’t rush it,” Woods said in a statement. “I missed competing.”

The record is rather clear on this, 417 days is, if not cautious, then at the least cautionary even for a player who has endured three back procedures since March 2014.

If the facts aren’t enough to convince you, then listen to those closest to Woods.

“He seems a little more reasonable about [his expectations],” Notah Begay said of Woods on “Morning Drive.” “There is going to be a certain level of maturity and forgiveness.”

Woods’ careful approach to this most recent comeback was also evident in what was a surprisingly detailed announcement that he was returning to his day job.

The Safeway Open, which will be played Oct. 10-16 in northern California, opens the 2016-17 season but, like nearly all of the post-Tour Championship fall events, doesn’t have the deepest field. It’s not exactly a “rehab start,” but it certainly has the feeling of a soft opening.

Similarly, the Turkish Airlines Open, which will be played Nov. 3-6, will have a deeper field but no cut, assuring Woods 72 holes against an elite field; and his Hero World Challenge in early December will be played on his home course in the Bahamas against another short-but-strong field.

All things considered, Woods appears to have checked all of the right boxes this time around.

Healthy? Yep.

Smarter? On it.

Realistic expectations? Well, Woods may have his head straight on that front but it seems doubtful the masses and media would allow him much of a honeymoon.

Perhaps the more pressing question, that’s assuming Woods’ health isn’t an issue, is whether the former world No. 1 can reinvent himself?

Since Woods tied for 10th place on Aug. 23, 2015, in Greensboro, N.C., the golf landscape has changed dramatically. The conversation is no longer about who could possibly replace Tiger; that question has been answered by a collection of players from Jason Day and Spieth to Rory McIlroy and Johnson.

How Woods fits into the current clubhouse depends on how competitive he can be after such a long layoff, and that will likely be decided by his ability to adjust to the reality that he no longer has the game’s best fast ball and may need to add an off-speed pitch to his repertoire.

The likes of Day, Spieth, McIlroy and Johnson have never really seen Woods at his absolute best, at least not at a major championship. They all seem to look forward to his return, but it will very much be a new chapter depending on how Tiger’s comeback progresses.

“It could be a fun fall,” Woods said.

Perhaps, but what is for certain is the next few months just became much more interesting.