The nature of Tiger Woods’s many severe injuries both preceding and resulting from his life-altering car crash created a dichotomy that few other golfers confront. Most greats are allowed to fade quietly, serving as a sort of golf patriarch while also still competing and occasionally reaching back to younger days to pop for 72 holes. Because of Tiger’s drastic physical limitations, his present and future have been framed as either golf competitor or golf ambassador. We learned this week that it can still be both, at least for a little longer.
Woods did not want to engage in the ceremonial golfer hypotheticals before the Genesis, delivering a powerful articulation why. But after last year’s showings, it was reasonable to consider he may have started to shade into the ambassador role. The comeback was audacious and his efforts to make the cut at the Masters were powerful. But it did not look pleasant or especially good over 72 holes. It was fair to wonder about his future as a high-level, competitive golfer.
This is an exercise we’ve been engaged in for the better part of a decade. In 2017, after his team announced another back surgery that would keep him out of all four majors for the second straight year and was performed for “quality of life” and not golf, I wrote: There aren’t teary-eyed retirement press conferences in golf. It’s rare to just completely stop playing any competitive events. There’s no Elway “I can’t do it any more” or Favre-ian back-and-forth declarations because you never really have to provide that kind of full-stop moment to the masses. That clarity may often never come to the player himself, either.” We thought we were robbed of those “still life” years, when an all-time great can still reach back and do something at the highest level of the sport. That 2017 surgery, in the moment, felt like the end, a full stop, not by his own choosing. We know what’s happened since.
Tiger cited that Elway press conference this week when he rejected the ambassador or ceremonial hypothetical. But he is there this week as an ambassador for his own foundation, the PGA Tour, its fans, and the game. He seems to be embracing that more — the balance between competition and what his presence means to people. On Saturday, he went out of his way to meet and acknowledge a young fan after his caddie had pointed out her sign noting her recent heart transplant. This happened during the tournament — needless to say, the scarily intense Tiger might not engage with fans like this in the middle of a round in earlier, peak years. He then high-fived fans on his way to the next tee. He did the same on Thursday night, high-fiving fans walking back up to the clubhouse after an incredible hour that looked like he was just out there with friends putting on a show, not trying to beat them in a competitive tournament. He now better embraces what his presence can do for others and the game (That’s also why the tampon joke received the coverage it did. It was not the worst crime and he did not need to be raked over the coals for it, but it was misogynistic. It’s okay that different people had different reactions to it.)
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) February 19, 2023
Perhaps more surprising than seeing Tiger interact with the crowd during competition was his actual performance in that competition. Only Denny McCarthy and Jon Rahm posted better scores in the third round than his Saturday 67. Tiger saving his best for the weekend was a new development compared to last year’s slogs. It got pretty grind-y on Sunday, but his golf was remarkably competitive — from the power and speed off the tee, to the distance control with his irons from a guy that gets almost no reps anymore. He told Dan Rapaport he thinks about the leg less during rounds, and Joe LaCava said it’s become much less of a discussion point. “That’s what’s more surprising than anything else—the golf has been nice,” he told Rapaport. “But the fact that he’s holding up, looking healthy, and not tiring at the end of rounds is a good sign.” Tiger did not actually contend and we tend to get detached from reality in the moments reacting to a couple birdies. But this week felt like the first time since the crash that he showed us he can be a competitive player for a 72-hole tournament, not just a participant and ambassador host.
An excerpt from this piece appeared in The Fried Egg newsletter. Subscribe for free and receive golf news and insight every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.