One swing does not a comeback make. But Tiger Woods’ return to the golf course had to start somewhere, and in recent days we’ve seen evidence — provided by none other than Tiger himself — that he is ready to get after it.
What that exactly entails is difficult to decipher at this moment, although his agent, Mark Steinberg, said Woods is under no restrictions and that he will take it slowly and carefully.
The fact, however, that Woods has been willing to let the world in, even briefly, with a few recent Twitter posts that show him hitting golf shots is a promising sign. It reveals he is not ready to cede his career to four back surgeries and that the subsequent chatter that his days as a competitive golfer are done might be premature.
That might very well be the case, as he acknowledged three weeks ago at the Presidents Cup, when asked directly about the possibility. “I don’t know what my future holds,” he said.
That led to many headlines about the chance that the 14-time major champion’s career is over. Woods, though, was simply answering a question among many that also had the 41-year-old talking positively about how the fusion surgery he had in April left him pain free in his lower back.
During a casual conversation on the driving range that day, I asked Woods if he had seen an interesting Golf Digest story from the summer in which Hall of Famers Lee Trevino and Lanny Wadkins — both of whom endured serious back surgeries — were bullish on his return.
As soon as it was referenced, Woods acknowledged the positives of his situation and immediately went into a medical explanation about how the fusion of the L-5 and S-1 vertebrae (performed on April 19 by Dr. Richard Guyer at the Texas Back Institute Center for Disc Replacement) was in an area of the lower back where there was little rotation — and thus affirming their positive outlook.
While he was far from making any bold predictions, Woods seemed at peace. He recounted how there were times when he couldn’t get out of bed because the pain associated with the disc and nerve damage was so severe. He let on that he wasn’t always the most forthcoming about his situation, and that when he played that one round in Dubai — a birdie-free 77 that turned out to be his last competitive round of golf before his current break — he was a mess.
He took hope from the fact that the latest surgery — quite serious and in no way guaranteeing a golf future — was at least allowing him to live life without pain.
“My prediction, he’ll come back in a blaze of glory,” Trevino said in the Golf Digest story that Woods acknowledged. “He’s not too old, far from it. If he gets fixed, when he comes back to hitting and feels no pain, he’s going to be so happy, that he may be more dangerous than he was before.”
Trevino, 77, was speaking from experience. He twice underwent serious back surgery, once following an infamous lightning strike at the 1975 Western Open. He won the PGA Championship at age 44 in 1984. His back gave him fits again in 2003, causing him to worry about even playing recreational golf. But he went to Germany for another surgery and “I felt so good I went absolutely crazy hitting balls and playing. I mean, I couldn’t swing hard enough at it. I was just so happy. I just wish that had happened when I was 44 instead of 64.”
Wadkins, too, reported pain-free improvement after back surgery, although it was toward the end of his competitive career. “I really feel that pain-free, Tiger has a chance,” Wadkins said in the Golf Digest story.
Woods’ driver swing — posted with him wearing his traditional Sunday red — has also evoked plenty of reaction.
It doesn’t appear that he swung with great speed, but the club head got back to parallel and there was a fundamental, although different, follow-through.
As one of his former coaches, Hank Haney, tweeted: “That’s a swing he could win with, it’s not across the line and stuck coming down, a little stiff looking but it’s good enough.”
Haney, who coached Woods from 2004 to 2010 (where Tiger won six majors and 31 PGA Tour titles), has long said that the biggest issue the golfer faced throughout all of his recent struggles was his lack of practice time.
Woods hit plenty of good shots — his last drive in Dubai measured 320 yards — but he was unable to put in the hours necessary to hone his skills. While the top players in the world were playing and competing every week, Woods was faced with continual rest and rehabilitation just to be able to start a tournament.
Gone were the hours spent on the driving range and the long practice sessions on the course.
Could those days return? Not likely, and certainly not in their fullest. Few golfers in their 40s practice as long and as diligently as those who are in their 20s. But perhaps a more consistent routine is possible, one that takes in just the right amount of ball beating coupled with physical therapy.
Woods has ground to make up that simply can’t be recovered. He has started just three tournaments in 26 months, missed the past eight major championships — and the cut in the past three he played — and hasn’t won in more than four years.
None of this is to suggest that Woods will win the 2018 Masters — or even play in it.
Right now, winning for him might simply just be playing, period.