From ski masks to surgeries, glutes to gravy, this was indeed a very strange year for Tiger Woods.
At least for the time being, Woods’ spot on this annual list of newsmakers appears etched in stone. No other player can create as many headlines or garner such attention, even without the meaningful on-course performance to match.
Woods put that maxim to the test this year, one in which he was barely relevant inside the ropes but remained one of the game’s most-discussed figures.
Never before have we seen a season for Woods which began with such promise fall apart so quickly. This was supposed to be the beginning of his Final Act, an opportunity to fervently renew his quest for the few career records not already in his possession.
Equipped with a new swing consultant and a clean bill of health, Woods embarked on 2015 with equal parts confidence and expectations. He was eager to put behind him an injury-plagued campaign and tackle a list of major venues that included two of his favorite haunts: Augusta National and St. Andrews.
What followed was a painful journey from one perceived bottom to the next, as a great champion was reduced to a shell of his former self.
The first red flag arose in Phoenix, where Woods’ short-game woes mushroomed into a full-blown case of the yips. Unable to execute a series of straightforward chips, he missed the cut in embarrassing fashion.
Woods leaned on some of his favorite buzzwords in the immediate aftermath at TPC Scottsdale, insisting that he was simply caught between swing patterns. He was quick to remind the world that he was not that far removed from a five-win season in 2013.
But then Woods abruptly withdrew the following week because of a back injury, limping off the course before offering his now-famous explanation from the Torrey Pines parking lot that he simply couldn’t “activate his glutes.”
That two-week debacle led Woods to take an indefinite leave from competition, the strongest indicator yet that something was seriously amiss.
“Like I’ve said, I enter a tournament to compete at the highest level,” Woods wrote on his website. “When I think I’m ready, I’ll be back.”
That return proved to be at the Masters, where Woods’ T-17 finish offered a rare glimmer of hope. But that would turn out to be his lone weekend appearance at the majors, as Woods averaged nearly 76 swipes per round at Chambers Bay, the Old Course and Whistling Straits.
There was also a third-round 85 at Jack’s Place, Woods’ highest single-round score and one that led to a solo dew-sweeping appointment the following morning. While that effort at the Memorial proved to be Woods’ statistical low point, larger setbacks still loomed.
To be fair, there were also signs of progress along the way, hints that maybe this lost campaign could somehow still be salvaged. When Woods returned to action at the Masters, he seemed a different player than the one who had bowed out weeks earlier. He was lighthearted and candid in his pre-tournament pressers; he danced and listened to music while practicing on the range.
And there was eventually cause for optimism on the scorecard, too. He turned two good rounds at The Greenbrier Classic into three good rounds at the Quicken Loans National, which led to the high-water mark of the year at the Wyndham Championship.
After making an unexpected and last-minute commitment to the event, Woods took the tournament by storm before ever hitting a shot. He demonstrated control on a tight track, contending and even leading deep into the weekend. While he didn’t win, he left Greensboro with his first top-10 finish in nearly two years and seemingly had some momentum heading into the offseason.
But just a few weeks later, Woods announced that he had undergone a second microdiscectomy surgery on his injured back, and another follow-up procedure soon followed. When he showed up at the Hero World Challenge earlier this month, Woods’ comments took on a somber tone as he offered no timetable for his return and appeared devoid of optimism.
“Where is the light at the end of the tunnel? I don’t know, so that’s been hard,” he said. “Hopefully the day-by-day adds up to something positive here soon.”
It was there, in a Bahamian sweatbox in front of dozens of media members, that Woods’ already disastrous year officially bottomed out.
Perhaps we should have known that Woods was in for a strange year when our first glimpse of him was high atop a mountain in January, donning a skeleton ski mask and missing a tooth. Perhaps each on-course struggle that followed should have been made somewhat less jarring by the one that preceded it.
But this was Tiger Woods. This was the most decorated winner of his generation, a man whose golf ball has been largely under his command and control for more than two decades.
It wasn’t supposed to go like this.
And yet, despite the struggles, we watched. And we read, and we commented. Woods is now ranked No. 413 in the world, but he is also the central figure in five of the 10 most-read stories on GolfChannel.com this year.
Fans care about Woods, both when he wins and when he misses the cut, and our “Tiger at 40” series has displayed Woods’ far-reaching impact on the game’s current landscape.
So while this year did not go according to plan for Woods, he still gave us plenty to talk about. And although his status for 2016 (and beyond) remains anyone’s guess, one thing appears certain: regardless of his performance, he’ll likely have a spot on this countdown next year.