By Dan Reardon
The PGA Tour’s wrap-around golf schedule, which officially starts months before the calendar year, has been fertile ground for players looking to establish themselves as believable talents who can endure against the world’s best players.
A year ago the fall schedule saw six of its seven event winners as first-timers on Tour. Players such as Emiliano Grillo, Justin Thomas and Smylie Kaufman carried that momentum into 2016 and became a frequent presence on tournament leaderboards.
When the new season begins at the Safeway Open in Napa, California in early October, among the hopefuls trying to get their footing will be one not so young who very much hopes to rise again.
It’s been exactly 20 years since “Hello World,” the professional debut of Eldrick “Tiger” Woods at the Greater Milwaukee Open. He was hoping to run the tables in the fall and avoid Tour qualifying. Woods finished 60th to Ed Fiori but went on to win for the first time in Las Vegas and added another at Disney to join a select group who never had to endure Q School.
This time around, after 379 appearances, 79 wins and 188 top 10s, Woods will tee it up at Silverado Country Club in mid-October. And the golf world will be watching to see if Tiger or Eldrick Woods shows up.
It will be just under 14 months since Woods faced the new generation of players on the PGA Tour with a T10 at the Wyndham Championship in 2015. That Tiger had a start-stop season that included missed cuts in three of his last six starts.
It will be just over 37 months since his 79th win at Bridgestone in 2013. And should the return prove more permanent than the last two tries, it will begin the count of 91 tournaments since Woods won his 14th major, beating Rocco Mediate for the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in 2008.
It’s not really a stretch to group the Hall of Fame Woods with the young hopefuls embarking on their PGA Tour careers at Safeway. The young guns will be wondering if their swing will hold up against the pressure of high expectations. Ditto Woods. The rookies will be wondering if they have the management skills to turn the inevitable off days into rounds that keep them in the mix. Woods too. The Grillos and Thomases of the 2017 season will want to know if they play well enough to have a chance to win on Sunday, if their nerves can be controlled enough to convert opportunity to success. So will Woods. His doubters outnumber the adoring fans who believe he will pull it off.
In this latest comeback, what markers should we look for beyond the scorecard?
The Swing. When Tiger left the course in ’15, it was a very young Chris Como tinkering with his mechanics. Through the bulk of his career, and a laundry list of changes, Woods has played the game most successfully with a right-to-left ball flight. Como had tried to restore that pattern, and Tiger was often “stuck” between now and Sean Foley ‘s left-to-right “then.” Is Como still the mechanic, and more importantly has a rehabilitated body allowed him to stay with that swing?
The Body. Everyone will be wondering if his constantly injured body will fail him yet again. How much of the weight-room Woods will be there, the same body-building controversy Rory McIlroy has endured? What no one will see is how sturdy the body is for the range reps away from tournament play, and what Woods is able and willing to commit to. Don’t rely on Tiger for that assessment. The Woods camp has been more guarded about his health throughout his career than Hilary Clinton about her emails. Woods could show up on the range at Napa a double amputee, and agent Mark Steinberg would have no comment on the change.
The Mind. Television crews will already have cued up the ‘yips’ footage from Phoenix and San Diego early in 2015. Woods rebounded nicely with his putting at Augusta but showed occasional stone hands in additional outings. While most trace the decline of Tiger Woods to the scandal that broke November 27, 2009, the actual launch point came a year earlier at Hazeltine when Y.E. Yang ran him down from behind on Sunday for the PGA Championship. No one in the room afterward should forget the stunned manner of a Tiger who, like Achilles, learned he was in fact human and vulnerable to failure. Since that time, Woods could actually be observed negotiating mentally over the ball.
The Person. In the time that has passed, Tiger’s rare public moments have hinted at a person more in tune with being over 40 with priorities in life other than Jack Nicklaus’s 18 majors. Woods was always at his best when he wasn’t a candidate for “Miss Congeniality.” Can domestic Tiger be as productive as snarling Tiger?
And just like the young tyros who will eventually find themselves paired on the weekend in the maelstrom of attention sure to be generated in California, Woods even has a measure of financial pressure. Elin still needs to be paid, just as a more enduring relationship will be going through a kind of separation.
Nike, which has long been Woods’s most generous off-course benefactor, has let it be known that they are out of the golf equipment business. Woods, like Rory McIlroy and Paul Casey, will be among many Nike Tour staffers looking for new club contracts. Tiger’s new deal will no doubt feature a lot of zeroes, but the few remaining companies in the club business have already cast their lot with the Jordan Spieths and Jason Days and their long futures on Tour.
Woods is far from a charity case, but he would have more leverage in contract negotiations if the incarnation we see this fall at Napa, in Turkey and at a couple of silly season events looks like the fully restored model. A vintage Tiger — nostalgic, but really only fit for a showroom — won’t have the same appeal.
“Ladies and Gentlemen. On the tee from out of the past. TIGER WOODS!”
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.