PALM HARBOR, Fla. — The most remarkable aspect of Tiger Woods’s comeback isn’t how quickly his ball-striking rounded into shape after two years of relative inactivity or how well he handled the crucible of contending after being sidelined for so long. To Wayne Gretzky, who watched the weekend telecast of the Valspar Championship with great interest, the most impressive part of Woods’s second-place finish was that he was back competing at all.
Woods, 42, could have limped off the main stage with his legacy secure. After $110 million in career earnings on the course and several times that much off it; after more than 100 worldwide victories, including 14 majors; after two decades of being saddled with a superhero cape that is one loose thread from unraveling into infamy, Woods could have become a full-time chauffeur and cheerleader for his two children, a part-time fisherman and scuba diver and an occasional adrenaline junkie who satisfied his cravings through bungee jumping, sky diving or heli-skiing.
Before carding a final-round one-under 70 to finish tied for second, one stroke behind the Englishman Paul Casey, for his first top-three finish since 2013, Woods could have drifted from the sport. He could have concentrated on his golf-design projects, his restaurant business and his foundation-funded learning labs. That Woods chose instead to rejoin a tour that in his absence had become the domain of players nearly half his age impressed Gretzky, the Hall of Fame hockey player.
“I think it shows how much he loves the sport,” Gretzky said in a telephone interview. “That sends a great message that the best athlete in the world in his sport is the hardest working and the guy that loves the game the most and still wants to win the most.”
Gretzky, who still owns or holds a share of dozens of N.H.L. records, added, “The Good Lord blessed us with talent, but to be the greatest you have to outwork everyone, too.”
On the eve of Sunday’s final round at Innisbrook’s Copperhead resort, Notah Begay III, Golf Channel’s on-course reporter and a member of Woods’s small inner circle, gave an illuminating explanation for Woods’s resplendent short game, the aspect of his play that failed him spectacularly in his limited starts the past two years.
Begay, a teammate of Woods’s at Stanford, said that Woods had installed four practice greens in his Jupiter, Fla., backyard, including one that replicates the putting surfaces at the Bay Hill course where he has won eight times. Begay added that Woods employed someone to tend the greens who worked at Augusta National, home of the Masters, which Woods has won four times.
“It is one of the advantages he has by having that practice facility when he walks right outside of his house,” Begay said during the Golf Channel telecast, adding, “It is one of the things he was able to do the most — putting and chipping — throughout all of these injuries.”
Woods and the rest of the field started Sunday chasing Corey Conners, a 26-year-old PGA Tour rookie from Canada who had held the lead since the first round. Conners’s best finish in his first 10 starts of the wraparound season was a tie for 29th.
When Woods was Conners’s age, he had 30 PGA Tour titles. Woods’s 20s were the days when his mastery of courses and his domination of his competition combined to make him seem more machine than man. He commanded awe while appearing only remotely accessible, like a Rembrandt painting hanging in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Woods’s native Southern California.
The public assumed he would be around to admire for years and years. But then came the injuries to Woods’s knees, neck, shoulder and back. There were also the indignities, including the public unraveling of Woods’s marriage after his indiscretions were made public and a D.U.I. arrest last May for the misuse of prescription medicine.
At the Presidents Cup last September, Woods, an assistant captain for the United States team, acknowledged that he could envision a scenario in which he did not return to competitive golf. He was five months removed from back fusion surgery and had not been cleared by his doctors to make full swings. While he took his first tentative shots with his long irons and woods, Justin Rose, who finished tied for fifth Sunday, was winning back-to-back tournaments in China and Turkey.
When Woods said he didn’t know what the future held for him, fans of his golfing artistry were left to face the prospect of never seeing another of his signature masterpieces. Perhaps that explains the wildly enthusiastic receptions that Woods received here and at the first three stops of his comeback tour. In an interview Friday, Begay said it seemed to him as if fans were hungry to show Woods their appreciation for how he changed the game while he was still around to soak it in.
“Everyone loves a comeback story, and the underdog, and Tiger became the underdog,” Begay said. “Just two months ago he was ranked outside the top 1,000 and was overcoming multiple back surgeries and sort of was the punch line on late-night comedy because of everything that had gone on. But through all the trials and tribulations, he nonetheless has found a way to persevere and get back to a level of performance that is literally unbelievable.”
Brandt Snedeker, 37, has enjoyed one of the best vantage points for Woods’s comeback. Snedeker has been in the same group for five of the 14 official rounds that Woods has logged. From what Snedeker has seen, the renewed appreciation being shown Woods by the fans is being reciprocated in kind. Woods is making more eye contact, signing more autographs, smiling more.
“I think he’s more at peace with his role in golf,” Snedeker said. “I think there was a time he was so focused on winning, he lost out on the relationships.”
During the Wednesday pro-am here, Woods stopped when he came upon a group of military personnel stationed at one hole. He thanked them for their service and added, “Appreciate it.”
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Woods’s comeback is that his performance has everybody looking ahead, not back. “The excitement going into the Masters is going to be massive,” said Adam Scott, the 2013 champion at Augusta National, “because I don’t know if any of us were really thinking Tiger was a true favorite in there, and he might be.”
Published at Sun, 11 Mar 2018 23:39:59 +0000