Tiger Woods Into the Future 3

So, 2017 will be another Year of the Tiger. Yes, once again Eldrick Woods, father of two, aged 40, of Jupiter Island, Florida, will dominate the golf world for the next 12 months. Despite not having won a tournament in over three years nor a major since 2008, this golfing phenomenon will draw the eyes of many more fans than any number Jordans, Rorys, Jasons or Dustins from now until December.

The reason behind this return to 24-hour Tiger watch is that, after a couple of false re-starts, the man himself teed it up in the Bahamas at his own invitation-only Hero Challenge last month (December) and the results gave hope of a new dawn to his second coming.

It had been 15 long months since Tiger had played, an absence that began in August 2015 and his luster after tarnishing as back surgeries and yet more injuries. Just before the break, an astonishing bout of the chipping yips was jaw-dropping.  So, the conjecture back then was no just whether he was finished as a top golfer, but if he might have to retire altogether.

Yet Tiger’s Hero Challenge performance told another story. Despite a few nerves, Woods finished 15th out of 17 players who completed the tournament; enjoyed one Tiger-like round, a 7 under 65 on day two; and managed a tournament-high 24 birdies. There were imperceptible swing changes, but some classic Woods moments like one spectacular hole-out from a bunker and plenty of radar-like putts. Those highlights were balanced by a handful of 24-handicap-type errors, but the general feeling was that this was a success for Tiger, albeit a small step on a longer journey. However, his fans are an impatient bunch, so what are the ex-No 1’s chances in 2017? Like most golf writers, I have a few theories.

Let’s lay down some historic foundations first. Tiger will always be a golfing legend. His 14 majors in just over a decade was mind-blowing, as was the fact that he was ranked as the world’s best for no less than 683 weeks, which is the equivalent of over 13 years.

His meteoric emergence from new, young pro on the PGA Tour in 1996 to sporting god, led to a whole slew of psychological traps being laid that would snag him in years to come. Tiger did not follow the template of his only equivalent.

Before Tiger, Arnold Palmer was the pied piper of golf. The King was a crowd puller like no other with Arnie’s Army stretching far and wide; he re-energized the sport in many foreign lands; and his brand was polished by a sharp business mind and a revolutionary relationship with television audiences, sponsors and tournament organizers. He was also happily married and never surrounded by a security blanket that blocked out reality.

Palmer’s heyday was the 1960s, but Tiger arrived 30 years later and never learned The King’s lessons. Woods had been a prodigy, an only child, lauded for more than a decade even before he turned pro. The product of a Vietnam veteran and his Asian wife, he was dropped into the world’s sporting spotlight with a golf game that was vicious in its aggressive nature. A black man ruling a white man’s game was even more astonishing, as were the tens of millions of sponsorship dollars that he immediately earned and the way he created an aura of invincibility that saw fine pros melt as he put on a final day charge. But it would all come at a price.

The more Tiger’s reputation grew, the more he was protected from the real world. His every smile, every word, every action was logged and analyzed to an unparalleled degree. His life was a goldfish bowl, but the glass was tinted so no one could look inside. Tiger became a master media manipulator – he was on camera all the time, yet said almost nothing except how he was going to win. He refused to reveal any cracks in either his personal or game make-ups.

Almost everyone suffered from Tigeritis – a blinding disease that prevented anyone from seeing the real Tiger. And that truth emerged during Thanksgiving 2009 when Woods was laid bare as a serial adulterer. His wife Elin chased him out of their Florida home when she found out, and even his best man and caddie Steve Williams was shocked by the secret life of golf’s most high-profile player.

That was the moment that Woods became normal, both as a person and as a golfer. Suddenly, a man who had been coddled and protected all his life was exposed as someone with regular human frailties. From that moment, Tiger could not walk onto the first tee with only golf on his mind – instead, he had the world on his shoulders just like so many of his rivals. He had to sort out his $750 million divorce, arrange when to see his kids and rebuild a tattered personal life and reputation. Suddenly, the eye of the Tiger could not solely be on his golf game.

And so he showed glimpses of his brilliance alongside regular periods of being just ordinary. Golf is about the mind and Tiger’s had been breached, his total confidence cracked. Now, four years later, injuries to a body that has been ridden too hard for too long have added to Tiger’s problems. Whereas once he could overcome a fractured fibula and win a US Open, that version of Woods was no more.

However, his 2017 persona may show signs of a new maturity. The latest generation of players who idolized him has their own brand of confidence. Tiger is to be challenged, not feared and Woods seems to have come to terms with his new status in the game. Even at the Hero Challenge, he admitted that winning would be a tall order, a humbling phrase that would not have left his lips a decade ago.

The Ryder Cup in Hazeltine also showed the new Tiger. I remember in 2010 at the Celtic Manor match in Wales where, at the end of a practice round for the whole US team, Woods was the only player to slink back to the locker room while every other teammate gathered around the 18th green to encourage each other. In 2016 as a team vice-captain, Woods was a different customer.

He declined press interviews until after the US win, and he offered advice and knowledge on an unprecedented degree. He became a mentor, a real part of the team. This was Tiger the selfless, not the selfish.

So this year Tiger Woods is a player re-born. His skill levels still exist, but his mind is not the mental fortress it once was. And, in golf, the performance of the brain often determines victory. Concentration, belief, confidence, desire, determination – these are all the emotions and life skills that Tiger is re-learning because the whole world no longer revolves around him.

Tiger starts 2017 at the Genesis Open in Los Angeles in mid-February and, of course, at some stage, he will catch lightning in a bottle and add to his 79 PGA Tour victories. Will it be then or at the Masters in April or even sometime this year? No one can really predict what Tiger will do. I would say it’s even money on a win in 2017, but don’t bet the farm.

Why not just enjoy what could be a vintage year of golf thanks to the re-emergence of one of the game’s all-time greats mixing it with an oh-so-talented group of highly talented twentysomethings. The only certainty is that golf is well worth watching right now.

Ross Biddiscombe’s two acclaimed golf books – Ryder Cup Revealed: Tales of the Unexpected and Cruel School – are available in hardback, paperback or eBook formats on Amazon.