“I’m sort of glad I’m not there that week,” McIlroy said with a smile. “It’s going to be a bit of a circus.”
Yes, it always is with Woods, who showed yet again Wednesday that he is the only player on Tour capable of hijacking a tournament – even when he’s not in the field.
Most players who finished their day’s work at the BMW Championship were greeted behind the final green by their manager, who gleefully shared the news of the day – that Woods hopes to play as many as three events before the end of the year, beginning with the season opener next month in Napa, Calif.
Justin Thomas apparently didn’t get the memo until he was informed by a reporter, but he was no less enthused.
“Really?!” he said. “Wow, that’s awesome. I’m so pumped.”
It has been more than a year since Woods played a competitive round. Since last August, Jason Day has risen to No. 1 in the world, first-timers captured all four majors and Nike exited the golf-equipment business. These days, the only guy who wins in a red shirt and black slacks is Patrick Reed.
“At a time when your Nikes of the world and your TaylorMades and the world of golf is in decline, and you get Tiger Woods coming back,” Graeme McDowell said, “it can only say positive things about the sport. It’s great.”
Especially for the Tour. Woods helped spawn the most lucrative era in professional golf history; the winner this week will receive $1.53 million, with the potential for an $11.44 million haul next week in Atlanta. But more than the influx of cash, Woods transformed golf’s image from a stodgy game played by the elite into a physical pursuit for athletes. The proof each week is on the range, which is now overflowing with muscle-bound 20-somethings who could have thrived as a safety or small forward.
Fans continue to flock to Woods’ group, even if he is playing poorly, just to catch a glimpse. Last year’s Wyndham set attendance records on the weekend; it helped, of course, that Woods began the final round two shots off the lead before settling for a tie for 10th, his best result in a miserable season.
“He brings an aura and an atmosphere that no one else in golf can bring,” McIlroy said.
Added McDowell: “No disrespect to Rory, Jordan (Spieth), Jason (Day) or Dustin (Johnson), because I think we’ve got an unbelievable crop of young talent that are incredible role models for the sport and give the game a real appeal, but no one moves the needle like Tiger Woods. He’s the only one who transcended the sport.”
McDowell is a major champion who holed the clinching putt at a Ryder Cup, but he said one of the highlights of his career was when he stared down Woods at Sherwood in 2010. Keep in mind that the World Challenge is an 18-man exhibition in December, when players are mostly interested in collecting cheap world-ranking points and cash for the holidays.
“I’ve always found him great to play with – it brings weekend focus right away,” McDowell said. “The show that goes with him is incredible.”
Among the players, at least, expectations for Woods’ return remain low. (The same likely can’t be said for the sports public at large.) He hasn’t struck a meaningful shot in more than a year. It’s reasonable to assume that Woods wouldn’t come back if he was at risk of embarrassing himself, but it’ll take time – days, weeks, months – to hone his scoring skills once again.
“The game is so tight with how competitive it is and how hard it is to win,” Day said. “I don’t think winning is going to come as easily as it was for him back in the past. But I think if he’s willing to do the work, and he’s willing to climb that mountain again and get back to where he was, then the possibilities are endless for him.”
At least one thing is certain: When Woods returns next month, the rest of the Tour will be watching.