By Michael Bennett
The former world No. 1, now the world No. 898, will tee off at noon tomorrow at the Hero World Challenge, an 18-player event in the Bahamas that benefits his charitable foundation.
He said he does not need to post good scores to consider his return a success, a jarring thing to hear from him but an honest assessment of where he is at.
“Basically, I’m starting out phase two of my life,” Tiger Woods said at a news conference at the Albany Golf Club, part of a secluded enclave for the ultra-wealthy on the island of Nassau. “I can’t play this game forever at a competitive, high level.”
Woods, who will turn 41 next month, played nine holes on Monday with Derek Jeter, the retired New York Yankees captain who has recently taken up golf. The two of them were part of a class of iconic athletes that emerged on the American sports scene in the late 1990s, among them Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning.
All of the greats that Woods considers his peers have since bowed out from the games they once dominated. But golf does not tell its elite players when it is time to step aside the way most other sports do.
At some point, they just become ceremonial players, allowed into some tournaments by virtue of their past achievements, for little more than the sake of nostalgia. But the path from elite to ceremonial can be long and meandering, leaving players lingering somewhere in between the two. That is where Woods now resides.
The nature of the sport gives him hope. Jack Nicklaus won the Masters at the age of 46. Tom Watson nearly won the British Open at the age of 59. This year alone, Phil Mickelson nearly won the British Open at the age of 46 and Jim Furyk posted a record-low score of 58 at the same age.
Woods can lose the advantage in power he once held over most players and find ways to adapt, in a way that a shortstop who loses range and arm strength cannot. But the enduring possibility of a return to form can extend a player’s twilight years in a way that can be difficult to watch.
“From the standpoint of longevity, golf is just flat-out cruel,” said Golf Channel analyst Notah Begay III, Woods’s longtime friend. “It drags you out. It exposes you. It gives you that one last shining moment, and you feel like you can stay there forever, but it’s so fleeting.”
Whether this week marks the start of merely another phase of Woods’s career or the final, forgettable act will likely have more to do with his health than his swing. He hasn’t made it through a year without an extended absence related to his back since 2013, when he was ranked No. 1 and won five tournaments. Since then, he has undergone three surgeries to repair nerve damage, the last two of which left him on bed rest late last year.
And he is already planning for a time when he becomes more of a businessman than a professional athlete. Three times during his news conference Tuesday, Woods mentioned TGR Ventures, the rebranding of his charity, his restaurant and his course design company under one corporate umbrella. The purpose, as Woods described it Tuesday, is to make his current and future business ventures less reliant on him being an active golfer, just in case he isn’t one anymore.
To be sure, Woods is far from apathetic about how he fares on the course this week and beyond. He did not come this far from the depths of his rehab to embarrass himself.
“There’s nerves, of course,” Woods said. “But I care. I care about what I do out here.”
But Woods does not simply face a challenge in his latest—and likely last —comeback from injury. He essentially faces four challenges.
There is his body, which requires more maintenance than ever. There is his psyche, which appears more fragile than ever. There is his swing, which he must refine while practicing less than he used to. And then there is his equipment, which is in flux in the wake ofNike’s decision to get out of the golf club and ball business. For the time being, Woods is playing with Bridgestone balls, testing different woods and keeping his Nike irons.
It all raises the question: Can Woods really be content with being just another golfer?
“I think the answer to that is he has to,” Begay said. “He has to find some sort of peace with who Tiger Woods is in 2016.”