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Tiger’s road back to Liberty National proves career always has room for optimism

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JERSEY CITY, N.J. – Tiger Woods brushed past Rickie Fowler on his way to the first tee on Tuesday at Liberty National with a smirk on his face. The two exchanged light-hearted barbs to complete the exchange, which often focuses on Woods’ age and Fowler’s wardrobe.

This is Tiger Woods in 2019.

He can be friendly and approachable as evidenced by the crowd he attracted in the Liberty National locker room during Tuesday’s weather delay. He can also be an enigma. This is, after all, the same player who ended a decade of Grand Slam doubt this year at Augusta National only to miss the cut at two of the three remaining majors.

It’s the same man who in one breath talked about “feeling great” during a practice round with Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson on Tuesday, before explaining that he was just “being smart” when he essentially put himself on a pitch count halfway through his Wednesday pro-am.

“Yesterday I was out there hitting it great. Driving it out there with Brooksy and DJ. Today I'm stiff. Hopefully I'm not that way tomorrow,” said Woods, who didn’t hit a tee shot after the seventh hole and nothing more than a chip after the 10th hole.

Most observers agree this dichotomy is the new normal for Tiger, a player still capable of great performances as well as bouts with perfectly pedestrian play. 

“I can't practice as much as I would like. That's a challenge and trying to build up to events is more difficult. Now we have a new season where it's condensed, and it certainly was a challenge,” Woods said on Wednesday at the post-season opener.

If that doesn’t exactly paint a favorable picture for Woods this week and beyond, Liberty National offered an apropos history lesson. Where some might see uncertainty in the idea of less being more and an abundance of caution, history proves just how impressive Tiger’s current plight actually is. It was less than two years ago at Liberty National when Woods gave one of the most somber press conferences of his career during the 2017 Presidents Cup.

Although Woods covered a lot of ground at that news conference, the general takeaway was “I don’t know what my future holds,” he reasoned. In that context, Tiger’s current plight has the look of a roadmap to success.

Consider that prior to that ’17 Presidents Cup, where Woods served as a vice captain, he warned then-captain Steve Stricker that he might not be able to attend the event because he “couldn’t ride in a cart.” Driving a car hurt and he admitted at the time, “there were some intrepid times; not just for this golf tournament but for life going forward.”

To keep things in perspective, Woods remained upright for all 18 holes of Wednesday’s pro-am, even if he did decide to forgo much of the “pro” portion of the proper pro-am.

Woods was even asked on Wednesday about his status as a potential playing captain for this year’s Presidents Cup, which will be held in December at Royal Melbourne.

“We're still trying to earn our way on the team,” he allowed while leaning into the pronoun.

When the matches were played in the shadow of Lady Liberty  in September of 2017, no one was asking Woods about pulling double duty. There was no need after he opened that press conference with a matter-of-fact assessment of his game.

“My timetable is based on what my surgeon said. As I alluded to last week, I'm hitting 60-yard shots. I'm hitting it really straight . . . it's a joke, smile, OK,” he said with a laugh.

No one smiled. No one thought his "joke" was funny.

The punchline seemed even less funny five months later when the PGA Tour named Woods the captain of the 2019 matches. He explained in March 2018 that after talking with a few former captains he realized it was something he wanted to do.

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“I called [Tour commissioner Jay Monahan] and said, ‘Hey Jay, might you be interested in me possibly being the captain of the 2019 Presidents Cup team?’ Silence,” Woods recalled. “He said, 'yeah, I think we might be able to work that out.' ”

Monahan’s double take was certainly justifiable. Being named a captain of an international team isn’t exactly settling into life as a ceremonial golfer but it sure feels like a similar pay grade. Woods’ desire to take the keys to the captain’s cart a few years earlier than expected was the most telling indication of where he thought he was in his competitive life at that moment.

But that all changed as Woods reached various milestones last season. He played consecutive rounds in consecutive weeks and eventually broke through at last year’s Tour Championship and put the finishing touches on the comeback in April at the Masters.

None of those things seemed likely or even possible the last time Woods reached for a microphone at Liberty National. Remember, “I don't know what my future holds,” he allowed in that rare moment of professional clarity.

Two years ago on the shores of the Hudson River he wasn’t sure he could endure the pain of driving a golf cart and didn’t even consider hitting a few chips or putts. His decision to mail in a pro-am round is sure to be scrutinized and some will declare this the beginning of the end, but his road back to Liberty National has proven that there’s always room for optimism.